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Mining the moon

Five members of the UW aeronautics design team sit in Guggenheim Hall. The team won first place in the "RASC-AL" competition in Florida. Photo by Joshua Bessex

Last winter, recent UW alumna Lindsey Gibbons sat below a clean whiteboard with a marker in hand and etched out a simple diagram before her teammates.

“I drew the Earth on one side and the moon on another side and was like, ‘Okay, how are we going to get from Point A to Point B?’” Gibbons said.

This was the simple task for a team of 23 aerospace engineering seniors at the UW whose solution to the problem won them first place in a NASA aeronautics design competition titled “2012 Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkage,” or “RASC-AL.” The competition asked teams to contrive a way to support a 30-person habitat on the moon.

This year was the UW’s first time taking first place.

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Senior Andrew Girardeau-Dale holds a plastic model of a lunar-surface habitat. The actual habitat would be inflatable and buried in the ground on the moon to protect inhabitants from radiation.

Thirteen members of the team flew to Florida on June 11 to present their proposal, dubbed “Mission for the Acquisition of Valuable Extraterrestrial Resources for Industry Commercialization,” or “Maveric,” before a panel of NASA and aerospace-industry experts.

Most teams competing focused specifically on designing a habitat, but the UW’s 2012 Space Systems Design Team went a step further. In addition to creating a sustainable settlement, the students created a detailed lunar mining concept to mine platinum group metals and rare Earth elements from the moon, two substances in high demand on Earth.

“When people think of lunar mining, it sounds a little wacky,” Gibbons said. “So I think everybody was just a little shocked by our project.”

Pushing its idea even further, the team’s proposal included a slingshot device that would catapult elements from the moon to land in the Pacific Ocean. Team lead Bryan Hopkins said the slingshot, used in place of a rocket engine, would be able to use alternative energy methods such as solar power.

“It allows for giant savings in fuel,” he said.

Other parts of the proposal were also outlined with cost savings in mind.

The UW team’s paper included a description of a fully reusable single-stage-to-orbit vehicle, plans to rent out research space at its lunar outpost, and a reusable lunar lander. In addition, under the team’s proposal, profits from the platinum and rare Earth elements would serve to fund future space missions.

“Other groups were focused on doing a science mission for NASA, and we were going to the moon to make a profit,” team member Adam Hadaller said. “That was our entire goal.”

The members of the team were enrolled in Earth and Space Sciences 420/421, a course called “Space Design,” which has competed in the competition for about 10 years.

“Students in the past would optimize to come up with the best technical solution, whereas students this year were taught, ‘What does a customer want, and how do we best get there?’” faculty advisor Dana Andrews said. “In this case, we had to do it very low cost — in real life as an engineer, the lowest cost solution is often the right answer.”

As winners, the team will present its concept in California this September at the AIAA Space 2012 Conference.

For Gibbons, who recently accepted an aerospace job position in San Diego, the competition was in many ways a taste of the real world.

“All of the materials we had to create were very industry-like, and you generally don’t get that in your average college class,” she said. “And the fact that we won is kind of crazy.”

Reach reporter Kirsten Johnson at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @kirstenj16

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