When Amogha Srirangarajan landed on the Case Western Reserve University campus in the fall of 2011, he didn’t waste any time with his head in the clouds. The triple major in mechanical, aerospace, and computer engineering officially established the Case Lunabotics Club in the spring of 2012 and is leading CWRU into NASA’s international collegiate competition to build lunabots that mine exotic minerals from the moon.
“Freshman year, when I got to [CWRU], I wanted to do something that not most freshman undergrads would do,” Srirangarajan said. “I was looking into different clubs on campus and didn’t find any [for me], and professors had research projects I did work on… but nothing gave me the spacey feel for it,” he said.
Srirangarajan had been building robots since middle school, but he had never come across an opportunity like the one that NASA began presenting to colleges all over the world in 2010 with the lunabotics mining competition.
“I got the objective [for the club] from NASA lunabotics,” he said. “The challenge was amazing. It was something that none of us had any experience with… I was in a lot of competitions back home, but still—it was beyond what I had ever dreamed of.”
The Case Lunabotics Club was one of four selected “rookie” teams this year out of 50 total, including 30 national teams and 20 international teams for the fourth annual lunabotics mining competition. The purpose of NASA’s lunabotics mining competition is to build a lunabot, also known as a lunar mining rover that can mine for lunar regolith, or moon dust. The lunar regolith contains rich exotic materials, one of which being helium-3. According to Srirangarajan, helium-3 happens to be one of the most efficient fusion fuels, and it doesn’t produce any radioactive waste.
“There are so many things on the moon, and [the findings] sparked a global effort to go back to the moon,” he said. “Part of NASA’s mission was to go back to the moon to mine these minerals.”
Instead of calling upon graduates to conduct research, NASA opened up the flood gates to national and international universities to create teams and see which team could produce the most practical lunabot in a competition. “Ever since, [the lunabots] are getting bigger and more intelligent,” Srirangarajan said.
“The competition has reached a level where the robots are autonomously making decisions and mapping the entire arena, going over obstacles, traversing around craters and boulders, going to the mining side, excavating the lunar regolith, going back, and dumping it into the hopper.”
The Case Lunabotics Club took one year to learn and prepare before they were accepted into the competition. Their first joint event between the Case Lunabotics Club and the Case Rocket Club, of which Srirangarajan is also president, helped them prepare for the challenge ahead.
“We launched a capsule to 110,000 feet,” he said. “There are a lot of constraints that we have to simulate on earth, and the best thing we could do is put it in a capsule and send it to space.” The clubs shot up the capsule near Cuyahoga Falls in the spring of 2012, right after they officially formed as a club, and the capsule drifted all the way to PA. “We got amazing data which the rocket team later used for their rockets, and the lunabotics team used the electronics sustainability data for our project,” Srirangarajan said.
The Case Lunabotics Club consists of 20 members total, most of which are male engineers. However, Srirangarajan notes that the club also has computer science majors programming the autonomy of the robot, and they once had an art major designing tee shirts, banners, and giving the robot some aesthetic appeal.
The club meets as a general body once per week, but when they’re not sitting down and having a discussion, over half of the members are dedicating at least eight hours per week in laboratories across the Case Quad and THINKbox to build one large-scale lunabot for the competition and a smaller one for the small-scale tests.
The club plans on taking 12 to 16 team members and one advisor to the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida for their first trip to NASA’s Lunabotics Mining Competition from May 20 to May 24 this year.
“There are only two requirements for the team. One, you need to have passion for robotics and space exploration. And, two, you need to have a lot of time,” he said. “Or, you need to make time.”
“Not a lot of things that you learn in classes [are you able to] actually put into reality… but [Case Lunabotics Club] allows you to do that… You have computer science, chemical engineering, physics, math… and it is working,” he said. “It’s a pretty good personal reward.”
“SLJC Spotlight on…” is a partnership between The Observer and the Student Leadership Journey Council to recognize student groups at Case Western Reserve University.