Want to help design a moon robot? NASA needs you.

A NASA-sponsored competition asks participants to improve the design of a bucket drum for moon excavation.

  • NASA wants your help redesigning the bucket drum system for its RASSOR excavator.
  • The Moon's weaker gravity and the excavator's light weight pose unique design challenges.
  • RASSOR will one day excavate regolith so it can be processed into the resources necessary for sustainable lunar exploration.

Are you an engineer, designer, manufacturer, or STEM student? Maybe just someone with a healthy predilection for bucket drums? Then NASA wants to hear from you.

NASA's Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative (LSII) is sponsoring a challenge hosted by GrabCAD to garner ideas for a bucket drum system to be equipped on the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (RASSOR) excavator. LSII is a technology development portfolio aimed at empowering human-robotic exploration of the Moon and, one day, Mars.

Designing on the RASSOR's edge

RASSOR 2.0 excavator

RASSOR 2.0 being tested along with the MARCO POLO/Mars Pathfinder, an ISRU propellant production technology, at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

(Photo: NASA)

The RASSOR excavator—a "tele-operated mobile robotic platform"—is being iterated at NASA Kennedy Space Center. Its current 2.0 design looks like it was built with a life-size K'NEX set. Four giant tread wheels surround the main platform, which has two arms coming out from either side.

At the end of each arm is a giant bucket drum with hollow cylinders for scoping up regolith, the layer of rocky material that covers bedrock. As the bucket drums on each arm counter-rotate, baffles within trap the regolith to prevent it from falling out as the excavator roams. When RASSOR reaches its deposit site, the drums reverse direction to spill their contents.

NASA's challenge for participants is to design a better shape for the RASSOR's bucket drums and interior baffling. The drums must be able to hold regolith at 50 percent capacity without spillage. That's easier said than done, and for most people, it likely didn't sound that easy in the first.

"With RASSOR, we're no longer relying on the traction or the weight of the robot," Jason Schuler, a robotics engineer in the Exploration Research and Technology Programs at Kennedy Space Center, told CNN. "RASSOR is excavation and transportation all in one, but we'd like to improve the design.

The reason the RASSOR can't rely on traction or weight has to do with the Moon's weaker gravity. On Earth, an excavator's weight and traction can be used to overcome soil's resistive force. The Moon's gravity is only 17 percent that of Earth's, so the RASSOR cannot rely on reaction force to penetrate the regolith, especially at depths with high density. For this reason, it must incorporate near "net-zero reaction force."

The RASSOR must also be much lighter than a typical excavator while maintaining the durability and reliability required to work in such an extreme environment. With space transportation costs at about $4,000 a pound, any pound shed or square foot condensed from the design equals thousands of dollars saved.

Another trip to the Moon

The RASSOR will be part of NASA's Artemis program. Through Artemis, NASA hopes to put the first woman and thirteenth man on the Moon—the first people to revisit to the lunar surface in more than 40 years. Once there, the goal is to establish sustained Moon exploration by 2028, a proving ground for the technology that may one day send astronauts to Mars.

To establish sustained exploration, NASA must practice in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). This practice allows astronauts to generate much-needed resources using local materials. The farther astronauts travel from Earth, the more necessary ISRU becomes to maintaining sustainable, human-friendly habitats.

RASSOR will travel to the Moon as a precursor to human moonflight. Coupled with a lander sporting a processing plant, the robot excavator will journey onto the Moon's surface to excavate regolith. It will deposit that regolith at the lander for processing.

Regolith can be processed into valuable resources such as water, propellant, and breathable air. It also contains metals that could be used to craft structures for the astronaut's labs and habitats.

NASA is working toward launching Artemis 1—an uncrewed flight to test the Orion spacecraft—later this year, but had to suspend work on the rocket due to the COVID-19 threat.

Challenge accepted

The GrabCAD challenge has a prize pool totaling $7,000. The first-place proposal will be awarded $3,000, with monetary prizes offered for second to fifth place. There is also the satisfaction and bragging rights of knowing your design will make sustained Moon exploration a reality.

The challenge ends on April 20, 2020. Finalists will be announced on April 27, and winners will be announced on May 4. To learn more, visit GrabCAD's website.

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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