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  • Two Axel rovers can link together to form "DuAxel." Then one of the rovers can be deployed, to explore over the side of a cliff, for example.
    Credit: Issa Nesnas
  • Grad student Melissa Tanner with a prototype of the Axel rover
    Credit: Sara Ahmed
02/09/2012 08:00:00

KISS Selects Student-led Rover Project for Funding

The Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) has announced that it will fund a new student-led mini program, giving a handful of undergraduate students the opportunity to help develop instruments for an extreme-terrain rover called Axel, which could one day be used to explore the moon, Mars, or an asteroid.

The funded proposal came from graduate student Melissa Tanner, who works with her advisor, Joel Burdick, professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering, as part of the Caltech and JPL team developing Axel. The experimental rover is two-wheeled and tethered around its center, like a yo-yo, such that it can rappel down cliffs to access hard-to-reach places. A rotating onboard science drum can deploy scientific instruments, such as a thermometer, laser spectrometer, and microscopic imager, even when the rover is on a steep slope. Two of the rovers can also link together via a central module to form a four-wheeled, "DuAxel" vehicle that can traverse flat or rocky terrain en route to a target destination.

Tanner says she submitted the proposal for KISS funding because every summer there are more students who want to work with Axel than the team can afford to pay. The $20,000 in KISS funding will allow four or five SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships) students to work on the project for 10 weeks while also covering expenses for their project materials. 

The students working on Tanner's mini program, called "Tools and Algorithms for Sampling in Extreme Terrain," will split up into two competing teams and spend the summer designing, building, and testing the best soil- and rock-sampling devices they can come up with that will fit within Axel's instrument bay. At the end of the summer, Tanner hopes to bring the students to the Mars Yard at JPL, where they could see their creations at work. 

"There have been soil-sampling projects before, but the devices are generally super expensive, and we need this to be very low budget," says Tanner. "So the mini program will be a great service to the project and, I think, a wonderful learning experience for the students, too. They're going to get to interact with all the folks at JPL who have been doing this for years, and they'll get to learn how a real NASA project works."

Grad student Melissa Tanner with a prototype of the Axel rover
Credit: Sara Ahmed

Tom Prince, the director of KISS, started soliciting proposals for student-led mini programs last year. "We have some of the best science and engineering students in the world here at Caltech," says Prince. "I wanted to give our students the opportunity and resources to be able to carry out an ambitious technical project—one that they conceived of and organized themselves. What better way to impact the future of space science and engineering?"

Last year, KISS funded two student-led mini programs. The first, led by undergraduate students Robert Karol and Joshua Lee, enabled students to test several payloads on high-altitude meteorological balloon flights and provided information and materials for other students to consider their own ballooning projects. The second was the Caltech Space Challenge, led by graduate students Prakhar Mehrotra and Jon Mihaly, which brought students from around the world to Caltech to attend lectures and design manned missions to an asteroid over the course of a week.

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier