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BSU Students Design Space Tool For NASA Competition

Samantha Wright
Boise State Public Radio
Zoidberg 1. The white "grabber" boxes open and close to gather samples.

A group of Boise State students has built a tool for NASA that one day might go into space. The Microgravity team is in NASA in Houston this week, where it will be tested by experts. If it does well, NASA may use the design on a mission to study asteroids.

“It’s kind of heavy. This is last year’s tool, if it wants to cooperate,” Boise State University student Chris Ruby is holding what looks like a weird, oversized pistol with boxes on one end. Everyone on the Microgravity team calls it “The Tool.”

“Pull back the trigger, it opens the box, allows you to scoop up a sample, close it, and rotate a new box into position,” says Ruby.

Think of a Grabber, the long stick with a handle on one end and pinchers on the other, for grabbing things that say, fall behind the washing machine. Only this grabber is designed to work in space.

“The hope is that in the near future, NASA is going to be able to send a crude mission to an asteroid and the tool is designed to help them collect rock samples off the side of the asteroid,” says team member Zachary Chastaine.

NASA's goal is to better understand the composition of asteroids. Chastaine says his team’s tool is actually called the Zero Operable Interplanetary Delivery Based Ergonomics Grabber. Or Zoidberg for short. Dr. Zoidberg is a cartoon character, an animated pink alien life form on the TV series Futurama.

Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio
Zoidberg's clamshell box is designed to open to grab a sample of dirt or rock off an asteroid.

Instead of hands, the cartoon Zoidberg has clamshells. Someone on the team figured out Zoidberg’s hands look like the boxes their grabber tool was using. They started calling it Zoidberg and Chastaine says the name stuck.

“It’s fun, because it’s easy for kids to remember too, and a big part of what we do is outreach to K-12 classes and it’s easier to relate than some more technical name,” says Chastaine.

The team is actually working on Zoidberg 2.0. The first prototype, built last year, made it to NASA in Houston. It was put through its paces in the neutral buoyancy lab, which is basically a big swimming pool that mimics zero gravity conditions. Chastaine says that tool was very successful.

“It had 30 minutes to collect three separate samples and it was able to that in about six minutes. So we’re building off that success this year.”

Part of the process was feedback from NASA. That included advice making it more lightweight, ergonomic and adding a few features that make it easier to collect rock samples.

The version they’re working on now is taking that guidance into account. Zoidberg 2.0 won’t be as heavy. They’re also redesigning the clamshell boxes.

In BSU’s Machine Shop, the team carefully works with a giant floor to ceiling machine that cuts out a part of Zoidberg 2.0.

Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio
Zachary Chastaine carefully cuts out a tiny piece of Zoidberg 2.

"It’s a really tiny piece that we’re cutting so we have to do this bit by bit and we’ll take off thousandths of an inch at a time and it’s kind of a labor of love. We’ve really got to take our time with it,” says Chastaine.

Slowly the tiny piece takes shape. Chastaine says once it is cut, it has to be carefully smoothed over.

“And that’s really important for us because we can’t have any sharp edges on any of the pieces in the tool, just because that would be a hazard for the astronauts, so the entire time we’re building we have to think of that sort of end result and make sure everything is safe as well as functional.”

Each piece of the tool that can’t be bought from a store is fabricated. The team is using a 3-D printer, as well as machining their own parts. Team member Audrey Gatewood says it’s very labor intensive.

“You don’t think of a lot of factors that go into a making a tool and you would think that’s so easy to make for something in space, but there’s a lot more variables when you go up out of our realm,” says Gatewood.

The goals, aside from creating a functioning tool, are learning teamwork, hands-on engineering design and sharing the team’s experiences with kids. Gatewood says it’s very important to reach out to children.

“So if they can understand that they can go to college and then they can be part of a team that can make a tool that can go to space, that’s quite impressive and quite dream-reaching for them,” Gatewood says.

The team is heading to NASA in Houston again next week, along with other college teams, to see if Zoidberg 2.0 can pass all its tests. If NASA likes the design, it could incorporate some aspects of Zoidberg 2.0 into an asteroid space mission.

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

Copyright 2015 Boise State Public Radio