05:29 PM

Out of this world

Mohawk Eng Tech design autonomous space vehicle

The future of space exploration may have a Mohawk connection thanks to a team of four students with a keen interest in the subject.

Tien Nguyen, Kathy Huynh, Daniel Blow and Phi Nguyen are all Mohawk students. Kathy, Phi and Daniel are Mechanical Engineering Technology students. Tien is an Advertising student. The team was Kathy’s idea. She convinced the other three to join her in entering the International Space Apps Challenge 2018, an international hackathon that took place from October 19-21. The competition was organized by leading scientists at NASA, and others in the space exploration business.

The contest drew more than 25,000 participants at 187 events throughout the world. The Mohawk foursome took part in the Toronto event that was organized by Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), and held at Ryerson University.

Being more “mechanically focussed” the team decided to take a different approach with their entry. Instead of coming up with an app, they chose to design an autonomous vehicle that could help space agencies like NASA keep tabs on their very expensive and very delicate spacecraft. They named the vehicle ERCSIUS, which stands for External Remote-controlled Surface Inspection Unit System. ERCSIUS is a concept only. The team built a virtual model. No prototype was built.

“ERCSIUS is inspired by nature,” says Daniel. “The vehicle’s job would be to scan a spacecraft for damage caused by debris impacts.”

To help ERCSIUS do its job better, the team incorporated features found in nature. One of those features is the vehicle’s feet. Here ERCSIUS borrows its design from a water strider, a small insect that can redistribute its weight in a way that allows it to run on top of water. The water strider design would allow ERCSIUS to land safely on the spacecraft’s delicate exterior.

ERCSIUS’s ability to fly around the spacecraft is another key to its design. Instead of crawling across the surface of the spacecraft, which increases the risk of damage, ERCSIUS would orbit the craft, only landing when it identifies potential damage. The team even thought of the propellant they would use for ERCSIUS’s thrusters. AF-M315E is fuel-efficient, stable and non-toxic, making it safer for the crew, the spacecraft and the environment.

ERCSIUS’s biggest benefit is crew safety. It would reduce the need for dangerous space walks and give crews an easier way to inspect and repair their spacecraft.

Daniel, Phi and Kathy came up with ERCSIUS’s concept. Tien, with his background in marketing, was the secret weapon when it came time to pitch the idea to the judges. It worked. The judges were impressed and the four were chosen to move on as Global Nominees. The team learned in December that they are not moving on.

While ERCSIUS may never be built, there is a small chance that it may inspire future designs. No matter what the four agree that the project was worth the effort and will look great on their resumes.

“We had a great time before, during and after the contest,” says Tien. “We were happy to participate in such a fun contest and we were proud to represent Mohawk College.”