HOUSTON — A group of scuba divers is swimming in a pool, and just below them sits a platform holding trays of rocks and differently sized boulders.
One diver is holding what looks like a type of drill. It’s a metallic silver color.
The diver places the end of the drill against a large rock. As he pushes against it, a cage at the end of the drill moves closer to the rock. Small doors open, and a tiny drill bit is placed against the rock. The diver slides his hand down the handle to move a valve. Suddenly the drill makes a whirring sound and the bit pounds against the rock as dust and tiny rocks float away.
The whirring only lasts for about 10 seconds, and as the diver moves the drill away from the rock, the doors to the cage close, capturing the rock fragments.
NASA astronauts repeat the procedure several times, using the drill on various types of rocks: not only large and small but also rocks made of different types of minerals. The testing is being conducted at the Neutral Buoyancy lab at the Johnson Space Center.
The lab is known for housing the world’s largest indoor pool. It's so large, there's a full scale mock up of the international space station at the bottom of the pool. Astronauts train in the pool because underwater simulates the zero gravity environment of space. It’s about as close as you can get to zero-g on earth.
The tool being tested would allow astronauts to chip off and save samples of an asteroid while they are exploring its surface. Researchers want to study asteroids to learn more about the origins of the solar system. It’s believed that asteroids have been floating around in space, unchanged, since the early days of the universe. We could learn a lot from these ancient specimens, and this drilling device could help astronauts do just that.
But it wasn't researchers at NASA or even another aerospace company who invented this device.
It was designed and built by physics students at High Point University. The device, called a chip and ship, was entered into NASA's Micro-g NExT challenge.
“NASA’s guidelines for the challenge called for a device that drilled into a surface that could be concave, convex or flat.” says Michael Cantor, a senior physics major. “Once the drilling was finished, the device had to pick up the pieces.”
Senior physics major Hallie Stidham adds, “Not only did the device have to drill and pick up samples, it need to retrieve samples without cross contamination and then return them to Earth.”
There were other requirements: the device could only weigh 15 pounds or less, it needed to be able to collect and isolate five samples, and the astronauts had to be able to manipulate the device in space while wearing bulky spacesuits. The last point was the genesis for the valve idea.
“Once we realized you can’t really bend a finger with the gloves, I came up with the idea to install a valve that would power the drill once the valve is opened,” explains Jacob Brooks, a senior physics major, as he slides his hand down the handle of the drill to demonstrate how the valve is opened. “You don’t have to close your hand, you just move the valve to open it."
Brooks then demonstrates how the drill is pressed against the target rock, the valve is opened, and the drilling begins.
“We worked with the astronauts and shared ideas. And because we built a really durable device, they were able to move the drill around, chip the samples and collect them,” says Brooks.
The chip and ship is designed to capture pieces of rock that are kicked up by the drill. The tiny pieces of rock would float in the weightlessness of space and would be trapped as the doors, which protect the drill bit, close, when the drill is moved away from the rock. The drill is made of hardened steel, and the rest of the device is aluminum.
And keeping that bulky spacesuit in mind, students designed each sampling chamber to be easily removed and replaced. There are also rings on the drill and the collection cages to which tethers can be attached, so nothing floats away in space.
“So when you’re going to the surface of a planet or asteroid, you really don’t know what kinds of rocks you’re going to find so you need to be prepared for anything,” says Matt Iczkowski, a junior physics and math major. “So when you have these rocks or surfaces and don’t have any pebbles to be able to collect as samples, you have to create those and this type of device can do that with any type of rock you find.”
Some of their testing with the device included the use of the University’s Geology lab.
“They have a collection of rocks and we found ones that closely mimic an asteroid,” says Barlow. “So we took the rocks from the lab out back and tested the drill. We also tested the drill on chunks of concrete that we found at a construction site on campus.”
The team spent almost a year building and refining their design, as well as the testing protocol, spacewalking guidelines and a presentation for a NASA safety board.
The agency was impressed. The design might find its way into future NASA tools.
“If I could summarize this project in one word it would be perseverance, because nothing ever works the way you think it will,” says Dr. Brad Barlow, an assistant professor of astrophysics at High Point University. "You might account for everything that can go wrong and it’s that one last thing you didn’t think of that will go wrong. So we did a lot of testing.”
Stidham recalls what it was like for the team to ultimately present their device to a NASA review board.
“It was a lot of fun, it was a lot of hard work, and we spent a lot of hours working on stuff, but it was rewarding, to see the faces on the review board," Stidham says. “When they asked us to come up and show how it worked, it was rewarding to see how their faces lit up. They really enjoyed seeing how our device worked.”