ASU News

Mining the Moon: ASU team takes part in robot competition


May 27, 2012

Arizona State University was one of more than 50 teams from around the world to test its Moon-mining robot design in the third annual Lunabotics Mining Competition. The event was held at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida May 21-26.

The international competition challenged university teams to design and build a remote controlled or autonomous excavation robot called a lunabot. The teams’ robots went head-to-head to determine which could mine and deposit the most simulated lunar soil within 10 minutes. Teams were judged on their robot’s dimensions and mass, regolith collection, dust mitigation, bandwidth and power usage, and the ability to control the lunabot from a remote control center. ASU Lunabotics team Download Full Image

The event drew teams from as far away as Bangladesh and Romania and included competitors from all across the United States. Top honors in the competition went to University of Alabama for earning the most cumulative overall points and Iowa State University for collecting and depositing the most regolith.

“We went into the competition with high hopes, but we were realistic since this was our first year competing,” says Ben Stinnett, leader of the ASU Lunabotics team. “We would have loved to walk away with a prize, but we are happy with the amazing experiences we gained at this event.”

Stinnett was one of four ASU students to travel to Florida for the competition. He was joined by Jim Crowell, Jesse Banks, and Patrick McGarey. All four students are majoring in Earth and Space Exploration with a concentration in Exploration Systems Design. The team roster also includes: David Nelson (Aerospace Engineering), David Darling (Earth and Space Exploration), Michael Anderson (Aerospace Engineering), Jack Lightholder (Aerospace Engineering), Nicholas Lantz (Electrical Engineering), and Pye Pye Zaw (Earth and Space Exploration). Ganesh Kumar, a graduate student, assisted the team, and Professor Srikanth Saripalli served as faculty advisor.

The team’s efforts are the latest in a rapidly growing program in robotics and engineering in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), which combines science and engineering to produce the next generation of explorers.

“I would not have been able to build this robot without my SESE classes, especially Mark Robinson’s and Paul Scowen’s Exploration Systems Engineering class (SES 405). That completely changed everything we were doing with the design of the robot,” says Crowell. “Without Electronics Instrumentation (SES 330) with Chris Groppi, I wouldn’t have been able to make all the circuits we needed, nor would I have known what a transistor is or what a resistor does.”

The team’s lunabot weighed in at 46.5 kilograms and measured 1.5 meters long (with the arm closed), 0.5 meter wide, and 0.75 meters tall.

In the first round of the competition, the ASU team had complete control of their lunabot, but they were unable to get out of the rut they started in. In round two, the team was unable to establish communication with the lunabot.

"With the limited resources and time that the lunabotics team had, they performed admirably. They gained valuable real-world knowledge that will be useful for the next year's competition," says Saripalli.

“This year was riddled with oversights. We came to the competition with a team of mostly freshmen, with no robotics experience – no one on our team had ever built a robot or competed in a robotics competition – so it was year of growing pains and learning experiences,” says Stinnett.

Next year, the team would like to secure more sponsorship so they are not only able to afford higher-quality materials but so that they can bring more people to Florida.

“Most of our team stayed back in Tempe providing moral support. It’s kind of sad that we’re here with their hard work and they’re not able to be here with us when other teams have 20 or 30 people with them,” says Stinnett.

Budgetary issues were a huge concern for the team. The average budgets for teams in previous years were listed at upwards of $30,000. The ASU team worked within a $5,000 budget.

In lieu of monetary contributions, some local companies in the valley supported the team with donations of materials: Microchip donated microprocessors and development chips; IGUS donated plastic parts to protect wires; and HeatSync Labs in downtown Mesa, a collaborative working environment for scientists and engineers, opened its doors to the students and assisted with questions and problems.

“Being a part of this competition has made me feel much more confident about going into the workforce and has given me an experience that I can expound upon in interviews. You really do need “real” experience, like this competition provided – projects beyond just coursework,” explains Crowell.

ASU’s Lunabotics team is sponsored by its sister organization SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space), the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and the Autonomous System Technologies Research & Integration Laboratory.

Images are posted on Kennedy’s Media Gallery at: http://mediaarchive.ksc.nasa.gov

Additional images and videos are on the SESE Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/SESE.at.ASU

For information about the competition, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/lunabotics

Nikki Cassis

marketing and communications director, School of Earth and Space Exploration

ASU News

Earlier detection of bone loss may be in future


May 28, 2012

NASA-funded research at ASU looks to isotope analysis rather than X-ray for measurement

Are your bones getting stronger or weaker? Right now, it’s hard to know. Scientists at Arizona State University and NASA are taking on this medical challenge by developing and applying a technique that originated in the earth sciences. In a new study, this technique was more sensitive in detecting bone loss than the X-ray method used today, with less risk to patients. Eventually, it may find use in clinical settings, and could pave the way for additional innovative biosignatures to detect disease. Illustration of abnormal bone density in osteoporosis Download Full Image

“Osteoporosis, a disease in which bones grow weaker, threatens more than half of Americans over age 50,” explained Ariel Anbar, senior author of the study and a professor in ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the School of Earth and Space Exploration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Bone loss also occurs in a number of cancers in their advanced stages. By the time these changes can be detected by X-rays, as a loss of bone density, significant damage has already occurred,” Anbar said. “Also, X-rays aren’t risk-free. We think there might be a better way.”

With the new technique, bone loss is detected by carefully analyzing the isotopes of the chemical element calcium that are naturally present in urine. Isotopes are atoms of an element that differ in their masses. Patients do not need to ingest any artificial tracers and are not exposed to any radiation, so there is virtually no risk, the authors noted.

The findings are presented in a paper published in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) the week of May 28. It is titled “Rapidly assessing changes in bone mineral balance using natural stable calcium isotopes.”

“The paper suggests an exciting new approach to the problem,” said Rafael Fonseca, chair of the Department of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, and a specialist in the bone-destroying disease multiple myeloma. Fonseca was not associated with the study but is partnering with the ASU team on collaborative research based on the findings.

“Right now, pain is usually the first indication that cancer is affecting bones. If we could detect it earlier by an analysis of urine or blood in high-risk patients, it could significantly improve their care,” Fonseca said.

The new technique makes use of a fact well known to earth scientists, but seldom used in biomedicine: Different isotopes of a chemical element can react at slightly different rates. When bones form, the lighter isotopes of calcium enter bone a little faster than the heavier isotopes. That difference, called “isotope fractionation,” is the key.

“Instead of isotopes of calcium, think about jelly beans,” explained Jennifer Morgan, lead author of the study. “We all have our favorite. Imagine a huge pile of jelly beans with equal amounts of six different kinds. You get to make your own personal pile, picking out the ones you want. Maybe you pick two black ones for every one of another color because you really like licorice. It’s easy to see that your pile will wind up with more black jelly beans than any other color. Therefore, the ratio of black to red or black to green will be higher in your pile than in the big one. That’s similar to what happens with calcium isotopes when bones form. Bone favors lighter calcium isotopes and picks them over the heavier ones.”

Other factors, especially bone destruction, also come into play, making the human body more complicated than the jelly bean analogy. But 15 years ago, corresponding author Joseph Skulan, now an adjunct professor at ASU, combined all the factors into a mathematical model that predicted that calcium isotope ratios in blood and urine should be extremely sensitive to bone mineral balance.

“Bone is continuously being formed and destroyed,” Skulan explained. “In healthy, active humans, these processes are in balance. But if a disease throws the balance off then you ought to see a shift in the calcium isotope ratios.”

The predicted effect on calcium isotopes is very small, but can be measured using sensitive mass spectrometry methods developed by Morgan as part of her doctoral work with Anbar, Skulan and co-author Gwyneth Gordon, an associate research scientist in the W.M. Keck Foundation Laboratory for Environmental Biogeochemistry at ASU. Co-author Stephen Romaniello, currently a doctoral student with Anbar at ASU, contributed an updated mathematical model.

The new study, funded by NASA, examined calcium isotopes in the urine of a dozen healthy subjects confined to bed (“bed rest”) for 30 days at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston’s Institute for Translational Sciences–Clinical Research Center. Whenever a person lies down, the weight-bearing bones of the body, such as those in the spine and leg, are relieved of their burden, a condition known as “skeletal unloading”. With skeletal unloading, bones start to deteriorate due to increased destruction. Extended periods of bed rest induce bone loss similar to that experienced by osteoporosis patients, and astronauts.

“NASA conducts these studies because astronauts in microgravity experience skeletal unloading and suffer bone loss,” said co-author Scott M. Smith, NASA nutritionist. “It’s one of the major problems in human spaceflight, and we need to find better ways to monitor and counteract it. But the methods used to detect the effects of skeletal unloading in astronauts are also relevant to general medicine.”

Lab analysis of the subjects’ urine samples at ASU revealed that the new technique can detect bone loss after as little as one week of bed rest, long before changes in bone density are detectable by the conventional approach, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA).

Importantly, it is the only method, other than DEXA, that directly measures net bone loss.

“What we really want to know is whether the amount of bone in the body is increasing or decreasing”, said Morgan.

Calcium isotope measurements seem poised to assume an important role in detecting bone disease – in space, and on Earth. The team is working now to evaluate the technique in samples from cancer patients.

“This is a ‘proof-of-concept’ paper,” explained Anbar “We showed that the concept works as expected in healthy people in a well-defined experiment. The next step is to see if it works as expected in patients with bone-altering diseases. That would open the door to clinical applications.”

However, the concept extends even beyond bone and calcium, the authors noted. Many diseases may cause subtle changes in element isotope abundances, or in the concentrations of elements. These sorts of signatures have not been systematically explored in the development of biosignatures of cancers and other diseases.

“The concept of inorganic signatures represents a new and exciting approach to diagnosing, treating and monitoring complex diseases such as cancer,” stated Anna Barker, director of Transformative Healthcare Networks and co-director of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU. Barker, who came to ASU after being deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, emphasized the simplicity of the approach compared to the challenges of deciphering complex genome-derived data, adding “there is an opportunity to create an entirely new generation of diagnostics for cancer and other diseases.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Human Research Program and specifically the Human Health and Countermeasures Element and the Flight Analogs Project supported this work. Bed rest studies were supported in part by the National Center for Research Resources, National Institutes of Health.

Written by Jenny Green.

SOURCES:
Ariel Anbar, anbar@asu.edu
Joseph Skulan, hematite3@gmail.com

MEDIA CONTACT:
Carol Hughes, carol.hughes@asu.edu
480-965-6375