Student teams are an underrated resource in much of the scientific community. Joining a team working towards a cause while at university is a great way to improve your technical and project skills, while improving your communication and teamwork, whether it’s racing solar cars or digging fish ponds in Africa. The space industry is beginning to capture these strengths, with student teams developing exciting projects around the world. Recently it came from students of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands – a six-legged robot called Lunar Zebro, which has a unique perception of wheels.
Zebro, short for “zes-benige robot” or six-legged robot in Dutch, was originally developed in 2013 as a concept for students to work on. Originally intended for ground applications, the group includes more than 120 students. In the last five years, it has also decided to develop Lunar Zebra, with the intention of becoming the first European rover on the surface of the Moon.
To navigate such harsh terrain, the rover uses a unique propulsion system originally developed at the University of Pennsylvania as the RHex project. These wheels allow the rover, which is only the size of an A4 sheet of paper, to overcome larger obstacles than wheeled rovers in its size class.
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Even at such a small size, the rover can still house a decent amount of sensors on its platform, including two dedicated cameras and a radiation sensor. Its initial mission is to operate on the Moon and continue communicating with ground stations at TU Delft for ½ lunar day (or 14 Earth days) while still being able to receive power from sunlight.
Getting a small rover up to the challenge of the Moon is a challenge. The team has already tested lava tubes in situ in some of the most hostile environments on Earth, including Iceland and the slopes of the Alps. But there are more challenges in space, including constant radiation and extreme temperature changes, which the team believes the rover can handle in its current configuration.
In this configuration, the rover could dock with any country’s lunar lander, although it doesn’t appear that the student team made a special lander to get behind. They also haven’t chosen a timeline for when that release might be. However, this did not stop them from planning the next stage.
This phase will involve taking advantage of one of the advantages of the Lunar Zebra’s small size – it is relatively cheap to manufacture. It means that someone can create more of them and then combine them into a bundle. The TU Delft team is not the only robotics team with this idea, but the Lunar Zebro project seems like a good platform. Linking multiple small robotics systems together can provide more information than any single rover can do on its own.
But to move on to that part of the mission, the team must first get their first lunar mission under their belt. There, the advantages of a student-run team come into focus. They will have an endless supply of students willing to work on the project, and the project itself enhances TU Delft’s reputation as a university where students can work on cutting-edge projects like this. But those students also rotate after a certain time. Some have gone on to start their own space-related companies, but more importantly, it allows the university itself to provide its students with valuable experience participating in and even leading technical projects. One day they might even say they’re working on a lunar rover – and that’s pretty cool in itself.
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Lunar Zebra is being tested.
Credit – TU Delft