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Asteroid exploration plan wins students prize

September 29, 2010

The challenge: Devise a mission plan for a manned exploration of an asteroid that’s on course to pass close to the Earth in 2029.

A team of Arizona State University undergraduate aerospace engineering majors took on that task in a recent national student competition organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), earning a second-place prize.

For the AIAA’s annual Undergraduate Space Transportation Design Competition teams had to meet a multitude of technical criteria, including taking cost-efficiency into account and justifying why a manned mission would be a better option than a robotic exploration.

ASU’s team included Aishwayra (Ash) Stanley, Amanda Mattheis, Benjamin Jimenez, Burcu Kececi, Michael Veto, Peter Renslow, Regal Ferrulli, and team captain Tyler Milner.

Their project, called MANTRA (“Manned Architecture using Nuclear Thermal Rocketry to near- earth Asteroid), planned for technology designed to support a mission for two to four astronauts, including a nuclear thermal rocket to transport them to and from the asteroid. 
To cut down on expenses, the team opted for a commercial launch instead using the facilities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the 90-day mission. The estimated cost of their proposed mission came in at more than $92 billion.

Students got a good lesson in “why it takes companies so long to get a product out in the real world,” Renslow says.

“So many systems go into creating a mission this huge” Mattheis adds. Milner found “time management was the key” to an effective mission plan.

A big benefit of participating in the competition, Milner says, “is that your proposal is judged by people in industry responsible for projects like this.  The feedback we get from these judges is invaluable. It gives us an idea of whether our design is feasible and is something that would actually be implemented by an aerospace or astronautics company.”

ASU’s team finished second only to an experienced team from Virginia Polytechnic State University, which has been sending its students to the design competition for the past two decades.

Since the competition, each ASU team member has completed studies under a new pilot program that enables students to earcn degrees in aerospace engineering with a special concentration in astronautics. A similar program offers a concentration in aeronautics.

The team’s success at a national student design competition “puts the astronautics program at ASU on a highly competitive level,” says Stanley.

"Considering that these students are the first to graduate with an astronautics concentration from ASU, they have done extremely well and set the bar high for future students in the program," says Praveen Shankar, a lecturer in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, who teaches engineering mechanics, space system design, and structures in space environments.

Shankar advised the team along with James Villarreal, a graduate teaching associate who lectures on space system design and rocket propulsion.

“Dr. Shankar was instrumental in devising flight trajectories and safe orbital traveling from low Earth orbit to the asteroid,” Milner says.

Cash prizes of $2,500, $1,500, and $1,000, respectively, went to the first, second, and third place teams.

The competition is funded by the AIAA Foundation, which brings together industry, academia, and government to advance engineering and science in aviation space and defense. AIAA is the world’s largest technical society dedicated to the global aerospace profession.

Written by Amy Lukau