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Paving a Road on the Moon

UC San Diego student team competes in NASA’s Human Lander Challenge.

Five students stand by a podium with their advisor at the NASA Human Lander Challenge.
A team of UC San Diego aerospace engineering students and their advisors presents their microwave sintering proposal at the NASA Human Lander Challenge in Huntsville, Ala. Left to right: Ross E. Turner, Nafanil Ceshkovsky, Brandon Vinh, Jason Chang, Sherry Tao, and Amy Eguchi. Credit: National Institute of Aerospace

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A team of aerospace engineering students from the University of California San Diego was one of 12 student teams selected from around the country as finalists in NASA’s Human Lander Challenge. The goal? To come up with the best solution to manage the lunar dust a spacecraft kicks up when landing on the Moon.

The competition is open to both graduate and undergraduate students, and UC San Diego’s team is composed of three undergraduate aerospace engineers, and one aerospace engineering student pursuing a master’s degree. Their idea is to essentially pave a landing pad for spacecraft on the moon, using a technique from the ceramics industry called microwave sintering. 

“Microwave sintering is where you take a powdered material and apply microwaves to it to heat it up until the powder fuses into a solid material,” said Nafanil Ceshkovsky, an aerospace engineering master’s student and team member. “On the moon, the dust at the highest layer is close to a powder, so our idea is to take a rover that has a sintering apparatus, and it will basically run across the lunar surface, similar to paving a road. But in this case it would be melting and sintering a landing path across the surface where a human lander can safely land without encountering dust.”

Five students stand in front of a lunar module at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
The students were able to tour portions of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center during the competition, and are pictured here in front of a model of a potential lunar module.

In addition to Ceshkovsky, the team is made up of undergraduate aerospace engineering students Sherry Tao, Brandon Vinh and Jason Chang. The group is advised by Amy Eguchi, a teaching professor of computer science; Zahra Sadeghizadeh, a teaching professor of mechanical engineering; and Ross E. Turner, a Jacobs School of Engineering PhD alumnus and senior systems engineer at Astra Spacecraft Engines.    

All 12 finalists received a stipend of nearly $10,000 to develop their idea and participate in the Human Lander Challenge Forum. The students presented their proposal to a panel of NASA and industry experts at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama on June 25- 27, 2024. 

"Being able to present in front of NASA was truly one of the most amazing experiences I got to have and I really enjoyed getting to talk to so many people from across the country that all worked on tackling the problem of lunar plume,”  said Sherry Tao, an undergraduate aerospace engineer at UC San Diego and team member. “It was a very fun and unique experience and I'm very grateful to have had this opportunity to participate."

A solution to lunar dust

If humans first landed on the moon more than five decades ago, why is NASA targeting the issue of moon dust now? 

“My assumption is that this lunar dust has always been an issue, but since there haven't been that many landings on the moon and the plan is that there will be a lot more, NASA wants to develop a solution for it,” said Tao. “The problem with this dust is that the fine dust particles can affect sensor usage, and some of the larger dust particles can be large and sharp and cause direct damage to spacecraft materials.”

Students present their research poster detailing an approach to create a landing pad on the moon using microwave sintering
Students present their research poster detailing an approach to create a landing pad on the moon using microwave sintering 

With NASA’s Artemis campaign planning to establish a long-term human presence on the moon, finding a way to mitigate the challenges of lunar dust is key. Tao and her teammates brainstormed several possible solutions to the challenge before settling on microwave sintering. The benefits to their solution are that it requires very few resources; is relatively low cost; and is a more-or-less permanent solution. 

“One of NASAs big ideas is trying to be as sustainable as possible with resource utilization when going to the moon. Our idea is that this solution would be quasi-permanent: once it’s sintered, the landing pad will be there until something breaks it, like a meteorite, which would be very rare,” said Ceshkovsky.

Since their design is a rover with a device similar to an actual microwave attached to the bottom of the moving robot, this one robot could be used to create many landing pads. Their design is also energy efficient, with solar panels charging the lithium-ion-cobalt batteries that power the rover. 

Brandon Vinh, another undergraduate aerospace engineering student and team member, said that according to their calculations, it will take the rover roughly 410 days to pave a 30 meter by 30 meter landing pad on the moon. 

While the concept of using microwave sintering has been explored by NASA researchers in the past, no clear need for the technology left a lot of specifics unexplored. The UC San Diego students are hoping their research proposal will add to that body of knowledge. 

“There has been some, but not a lot of research in this area,” said Tao. “So we’re coming up with a more official formulation of how this could be done.”

The students were excited to share the results of their research at the competition.

“We were a little surprised when we found out we were selected as finalists, but also happy because we did put a lot of effort into our proposal. But we knew we were up against a lot of really good schools, and we’re only four people. It was a good learning experience and we’re really happy and proud of what we’ve done in our project so far.”

"It was an incredible experience meeting and presenting in front of NASA scientists across the nation,” said team member Jason Chang. “This competition allowed me to better understand the process NASA goes through—iterating through ideas, submitting proposals, evaluating them—all to finally implement their working designs in space."

"This experience was so unique in the sense that I got a chance to connect with people from around the country who have all achieved so much in the engineering world,” added Vinh. “It was challenging and fun to present in front of NASA leaders and be around those who all want to solve the same problem."

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