Two Seattle-area students are finalists in NASA design contest for lunar dirt-digging robots

Project Stardust by Ke “Max” Jiang, left, and Terebro, by Mason Lysaght. (Lunabotics Images)

Dig this — two Seattle-area students were semifinalists in a national contest run by NASA in which kids in grades K-12 were tasked with designing a robot that could scoop up and transport lunar soil.

The Lunabotics Junior Contest winners were named at the end of March and among 20 kids in the final pack were Ke “Max” Jiang of Bellevue, Wash., and Mason Lysaght of Snohomish. The contest attracted approximately 2,300 design submissions.

The entrants were tasked with making a drawing of their robot’s design, either as an original work of art, 3D model, diagram or photograph of a prototype. A written summary of the machine’s design was also required.

NASA based the contest around its ambition to return to the Moon and future needs related to digging and moving lunar soil, or regolith, from one area of the lunar South Pole to a holding container near a planned Artemis Moon base. The planned robots — no bigger than 3.5 feet x 2 feet x 2 feet, had to address concerns including how the robots would scoop and dig regolith; how much dirt would be transported on each trip; and how the machines would deal with lunar dust clinging to everything.

Lunar regolith will be used for multiple purposes, according to NASA, such as building a Moon base using lunar concrete; harvesting water that also can be used for rocket fuel; and extracting possible metals or minerals. 

We caught up with Max and Mason to learn more about their designs, their inspiration, views on tech and future aspirations. Responses edited for length and clarity.

Ke ‘Max’ Jiang – Project Stardust

Ke “Max” Jiang. (Photo courtesy of Ke Jiang)

GeekWire: How old are you and where do you go to school?

Max: I am 17 years old. I am a junior at Interlake High School in Bellevue. It’s a great school offering a rigorous International Baccalaureate program, and I am fortunate to have many teachers who exposed me to advanced topics in physics, chemistry, design technology, and economics of designing things.

GW: How long have you been interested in robotics?

Max: When I was little, I enjoyed watching and playing with things that could drive, fly, or operate autonomously at the pull of a switch. As early as 3 years old, I would sit for hours putting toy rails in different designs, and by the age of 8, I would assemble large Lego sets, and use all available shapes to design my own airplanes and boats, even adding robotic motors and making them move.

My middle school had a workshop which allowed me to use real building tools for the first time. I was able to design and program small cars and drones, leading to me and my team winning second place in the Museum of Flight’s annual Space Elevator Challenge. During this time, I also started using computerized design software and simulator games like Kerbal Space Program. 

In high school I was able to participate in Engineering Innovation (EI) program from John Hopkins University at 10th grade and got exposed to rigorous design processes from ideation to implementation. It was a lot of fun working in a completely remote team, with everyone trying our best to build the most sturdy “Golden Gate” bridge with spaghetti, wax papers and glue!

More details about Project Stardust. (Lunabotics Image)

GW: How did you come up with your Lunabotics idea?

Max: I started with defining my primary objective — a key design principle, so I know what to maximize for and where to make necessary trade-offs. This challenge was called to dig, transport, and unload lunar regolith most efficiently. In my assessment, traveling back and forth through unknown terrain was a major risk factor, therefore my objective was to maximize the carrying capacity — and thus the size — of the rover, which in turn, would reduce the number of trips taken and minimize the risk of failed travels. I also learned the practical lesson that any good design must account for specific conditions the design is operated under. In this challenge, operating on the moon means navigating through uneven terrains in permanent darkness, encountering lunar dust, and sustained unmanned operations. Lastly, reliability is key. So I decided to integrate proven technologies to make the rover work optimally.

With those in mind, I set to design the basic structure of my rover, the Stardust — a large regolith container on top of a frame supported by a set of six wheels. For ease of automation, the regolith container can flip and dump out the regolith quickly, just like a dump truck. Similarly, existing tech like the Rocker-Bogie suspension system was used on Stardust’s undercarriage, so it could travel easily over uneven terrain, and an excavator from modern industrial bucket-wheel design was added for sustained regolith collection. Following the basic structure, I added a power source (two Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators) to provide continuous power during the fortnight-long Lunar night, sets of batteries, communication equipment, and a navigation camera. Lastly, I added additional details to show vital subsystems, such as electrode circuits to repel lunar dust.

GW: What technology are you most excited about right now?

Max: I am most excited about the development of reusable rockets and spaceplanes, as well as related technologies such as new propellants, combined-cycle spaceplane engines, and the like. Making spaceplanes reusable would significantly drive down the cost, and a reliable launch-and-return will attract more interests and investment. Updates from SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Reaction Engines Limited, and CASIC are all what I closely follow on every turn. I believe, one day, common people like you and I can afford a seat in a spacecraft and enjoy the view of Earth from the above.

GW: What’s your dream job?

Max: My dream job is to become an aerospace engineer, preferably specialized in propulsion. I would take great pride in contributing to the advancement of space exploration, making it accessible to every kid who has a dream of flight to go faster and farther. 

Mason Lysaght – Terebro (drill in Latin)

A sketch of the Terebro lunar robot by Mason Lysaght. (Lunabotics Image)

GeekWire: How old are you and where do you go to school?

Mason: I am 14 years old. I go to Valley View Middle School in Snohomish. 

GW: How long have you been interested in robotics?

Mason Lysaght. (Photo courtesy of Mason Lysaght)

Mason: I’ve always been curious about how things work, be it robotics, natural phenomenon, chemistry, etc.  For the past couple of years, I have been lucky enough to be gifted subscriptions to robotics and engineering kits so that I could better explore my interest in these fields. The Lunabotics Junior challenge was a great way to channel my creativity and scientific interest, and I am glad that I was given the opportunity to participate. 

GW: How did you come up with your Lunabotics idea?

Mason: I took a lot of inspiration from successful NASA rovers like Perseverance. I tweaked the designs of these rovers and recreated them to better fit the challenge’s requirements: being able to efficiently excavate and transport lunar regolith. I then added more features, like the many power sources (an MMRTG, a pack of lithium-ion batteries, and solar panels equipped with brushes), a scoop, and extra wheels in the front to turn up the regolith. 

GW: What technology are you most excited about right now?

Mason: There are many different types of technologies that I am interested in! The possibilities with AI and virtual reality are intriguing (and a little scary). Of course, I’m excited about tech like Perseverance, or the James Webb telescope, as these could really advance our efforts in furthering space exploration. 

GW: What’s your dream job?

Mason: Since I’m still in middle school, and don’t know exactly what my future holds, I’d say that I have some dream fields rather than a specific job. I would obviously be interested in careers that are robotics or engineering related, and I love the idea of pursuing aerospace technology. Honestly, working for NASA would be a dream for me.