ASU class prepares next generation of space explorers with hands-on payload drop project
One by one during the class, strange crafts fall from the sky. They look like badminton shuttlecocks, restaurant roll baskets, or aluminum Jiffy Pop domes. They land softly or hard, sometimes spraying parts, sometimes missing the target.
None of them are missing the point, however, which is learning how space scientists and engineers work in the real world to explore the solar system.
This is SpaceWorks 1, being taught in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.
“I’m trying to get them to think like engineers,” said class instructor Phil Christensen, no stranger to things that fall from the sky and then have to work perfectly. Christensen, a Regents' Professor and NASA veteran, has instruments peering into various corners of the solar system.
The students are budding astrobiologists, systems designers and aerospace engineers. Their challenge? Drop a payload, have it safely land in one piece on a foam pad, and then deploy something. There’s a weight restriction: 500 grams for the whole package. It can’t have any power. And all this has to be done on a strict schedule.
Today is the first test. After this class, each team has to go before a Failure Review Board and explain what went wrong and how they’re going to fix it.
Christensen stands at the railing on the fifth floor of the atrium inside Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV on the Tempe campus. “There’s a reason people still die jumping out of planes with parachutes,” he said. “They rip, they tear, they don’t deploy.”
Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now
It took years — years — to perfect the parachutes that dropped the rovers to the Martian surface. They ripped. They tore. They didn’t deploy.
“Cameras are ready,” Christensen said. “Lights are ready. We just need some action.”
It’s go time for Team 12. Their craft looks like a big blue badminton shuttlecock. It lands top-up with some tethered orange balls flying out to the side.
The next craft is much larger, made of clear plastic panels and orange plastic parts. It misses the target, but a black parachute deploys quickly and it lands softly.
Team 10 has taken the classic approach. Their machine looks like the Apollo lunar module, with legs jutting from the sides. In NASA parlance, it has heritage; it’s a design or system that has flown before successfully. NASA likes heritage. They don’t like reinventing the wheel.
But the parachute doesn’t deploy too well from Team 10's module. It inflates as much as a tube sock would. Landing is rough. A leg breaks off.
Next up: This one looks like a restaurant roll basket with a maroon napkin hiding something unpleasant in it. Landing is accurate, but not up to commercial aviation comfort standards.
Finally, there’s an aluminum ball that looks like a fully inflated Jiffy Pop dome.
Rachel Roland breathes a sigh of relief. Roland, earning a second degree in astrobiology, signed up for the class to get some experience cross-training in engineering. Should she ever take part in a mission to Europa or Enceladus as she hopes, it could come in handy.
“I think it’s really important as a scientist to understand what the engineers do,” she said. “If I ever want to be a part of a project that will go into space, I need to know how this works. I think it’s really cool and I’m actually having fun learning about engineering. … Getting to see my project work was actually a bonus.”
The students didn’t get any hints or ideas from instructors. “Go be creative” was the extent of direction.