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Designers Rise To NASA Challenges

Designers Rise to NASA Challenges

Students in the recently launched RISD Space Design club are working on getting three separate projects into outer space.

An astronaut sifts moon dust through their fingers

NASA’s 2021 Big Idea Challenge focuses on protecting astronauts and their equipment from harmful regolith, or lunar dust.

When the RISD Space Design club first came together last fall, the students involved were unable to decide on which NASA challenge to pursue, so they submitted multiple applications to see which one would stick. NASA accepted three of their proposals, says club Vice President Hannah Dunnigan BRDD 23 ID, “which created quite the workload and a lot of moving parts. We’re learning how to manage multiple teams and multiple timelines.”

Club President Sebastian Boal 22 ID explains that RISD Space Design grew out of the former RISD Rover club, a team of students led by then-NASA Coordinator Michael Lye 96 ID that designed and raced human-powered vehicles capable of traversing the surfaces of other worlds as part of NASA’s annual Human Exploration Rover Challenge. “We were ready to race the Rover last year—but then COVID hit and the club disbanded,” says Boal. 

Rendering showing magnified view of TEST-RAD design
RISD and Brown students are collaborating on a dust mitigation design that might also solve problems for miners here on Earth.


Part of the ideation process for this year’s challenges, he adds, was identifying projects that could be tackled digitally since the club is only able to meet virtually during the pandemic. “We also have to work around COVID testing schedules to keep everyone safe,” he says. “In comparison to the Rover Challenge, which required a team of 12 people to physically work on the vehicle at the same time, this year’s challenges are fairly easy to do remotely.”

Two of those challenges have already received funding from NASA: The BIG Idea Challenge, a collaboration with students in the Brown Space Engineering club, and Micro-G Next, part of NASA’s Artemis program, whose mission is to land the next team of astronauts on the moon by 2024 and use innovative technologies to explore the lunar surface. 

Diagram showing elements of TEST-RAD design

A third Artemis-related proposal in development is headed up by club Vice Presidents Bowen Zhou 22 ID and Selena Yang 23 ID and is at the core of a paper the two will present at a virtual MIT conference on May 14. Industrial Design faculty member Jerome Arul 12 ID is providing manufacturing guidance as needed for all three projects.

The BIG Idea Challenge drew more than 100 proposals, primarily from graduate and PhD programs, and the RISD/Brown TEST-RAD proposal was one of seven selected by NASA for funding. TEST-RAD (Tufted Electrostatic Solution to Regolith Adhesion Dilemma) is intended to protect astronauts and their equipment from space dust (regolith), spiky particles similar in size to asbestos that cling to surfaces and damage the lungs. 

“The technology we’re developing uses densely packed fibers that are electrostatically charged to repel the dust.”

Club Vice President Hannah Dunnigan BRDD 23 ID

“The technology we’re developing uses densely packed fibers that are electrostatically charged to repel the dust,” Dunnigan explains. The original thought was to apply the technology to space suits, but early feedback from NASA engineers suggests that the tech would need to be tested in a lower-stakes arena first, perhaps as part of a camera lens or battery cover that traveled to space.

Also selected for funding by NASA, the RISD team’s Micro-G Next project is a dispenser that attaches to an astronaut’s space suit, making it easy to collect samples during space walks. “We should be done with the final prototype in about three weeks,” says Dunnigan. “The body of the dispenser is made out of folded aluminum, and we’re doing most of the work in the Industrial Design department’s metal shop.” NASA will test the completed prototype in the simulated microgravity environment of its Johnson Space Center Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. 

Rendering of Micro-G Next sample collection container design
The RISD team’s Micro-G Next project is a dispenser that attaches to an astronaut’s space suit, making it easy to collect samples during space walks. 


The third challenge, part of the NASA SUITS (Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students) Competition, is an Augmented Reality headset that would project data, maps and other mission-critical information inside the visor of an astronaut’s helmet during spacewalks. “Our design will help astronauts navigate the lunar surface, take field notes, record geological samples and display telemetry data such as oxygen levels or pressure in the suit,” Yang explains. The team is currently conducting research and gathering data from software engineers, designers and astronauts and hopes to present their ideas to NASA in the fall. 

“Our design will help astronauts navigate the lunar surface, take field notes, record geological samples and display telemetry data such as oxygen levels or pressure in the suit.”

Sophomore Selena Yang 23 ID

All three of the projects have potential applications here on Earth, Zhou adds. “A lot of new tech comes from space research, for example Velcro,” she says. “Our TEST-RAD technology might also help miners, who have similar problems with harmful dust particles.”

Do all of the students in the club hope to work for NASA someday? “The collective dream is that some small part of one of our concepts actually ends up in space,” says Dunnigan. “That would be the best possible outcome.”

Simone Solondz

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