Wellesley Students Try Planetary Exploration on Campus

July 21, 2016

Wes Watters, Diana Chapman Walsh Assistant Professor of Astronomy, was a member of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover science team for eight years before he came to Wellesley. That experience was the inspiration, he said, for ASTR 202: Hands-on Planetary Exploration, a course that allows students to design and build a probe to explore a specific environment of their choosing. The course debuted in spring 2016.

The students' design work began on the first day of class, when Watters asked them to divide into groups and identify potential missions, scientific objectives, and vehicle design, and to provide feedback on one another's ideas. That brainstorming session introduced the kind of collaborative problem-solving and critical thinking he had done at NASA and that students would use throughout the course.

The only required reading was Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity's Chief Engineer. The book describes crucial lessons—such as the importance of communication, rigorous testing, and trying to anticipate how things can go wrong—and details the many obstacles the team encountered while designing and building the Curiosity rover, such as figuring out how to land the spacecraft when they could not simulate conditions here on Earth.

"I wanted students to understand that even top scientists and engineers make mistakes, and have to figure out completely new ways to solve problems, and sometimes find that the solution is simpler than they expected," said Watters.

With those ideas in mind, students then learned how to operate and program the Raspberry Pi, a new single-board Linux computer that can be used for many purposes, such as recording data from environmental sensors like thermometers, barometers, and light meters, and runs on portable batteries. The palm-sized Pi, just $35, can also be hooked up to multiple cameras, allowing users to capture images over time from remote locations.

Once students had gained basic technical skills with the Raspberry Pi and sensors, they broke into groups and began developing detailed project proposals that included questions they wanted to address about the environment, vehicle design, a project timeline, budget, safety issues, and deliverables. Each group received feedback from their classmates, from Watters, and from Rose Gibson '16, an astrophysics major and course assistant known as the NINJA, meaning "Need information now? Just ask."

"Their proposals were based on NASA's mission proposal guidelines," said Watters, who recommended revisions—more rigorous objectives, alternative approaches, more attention to safety issues—before he approved the projects.

The projects, which had an initial budget of $500 each, included a stationary observatory; a rocket called HAWK (High Above Wellesley’s Kampus); a YELLO submarine (Yoked ELectronic Lake Observer); high-altitude balloons called 1 Luftballon (after the 1983 pop song "99 Luftballons") and HAB Solo; and QuEEnBAE (Quadcopter Enthusiastically Engineered by Burgeoning Astronomy Explorers).

Those names reflect the innovative, creative thinking needed in a hands-on course where students must solve problems they have never seen or anticipated, said Watters. For example, the QuEEnBAE team needed to figure out what materials to use; they made components of their copter on the 3D printers at Wellesley's Knapp Media and Technology Center in the Clapp Library, cut the frame plates in the Science Center's machine shop, and purchased and soldered the necessary electronic components for the motors and flight control system. The groups also faced design challenges, such as how to waterproof the instrument box that contained the Raspberry Pi of the YELLO submarine, and how to safely fly and recover the two balloon payloads. The HAWK group had the unique challenge of finding a location where they could launch their high-altitude rocket to explore the Earth’s lower atmosphere, which required approval from local authorities.

"A lot of learning happens in the process of solving a complex technical problem," said Watters. "As the students searched for solutions, they made use of many kinds of resources and had to learn or develop new varieties of know-how. For example, they made use of the We-Lab a lot, where they learned to use a wide range of tools."

By the end of the semester, each group had gained a tremendous amount of technical knowledge and confidence in their ability to identify and overcome new challenges, Watters said, and nearly all the probes returned useful data. They also encountered issues that future ASTR 202 students will consider as they work on similar projects.

For example, when the members of the HAWK group launched their rocket in Amesbury, Mass., where they were hosted by the Central Massachusetts Spacemodeling Society, their first attempt was unsuccessful because of a faulty ignition wire. They fixed that problem, but on the second attempt, unexpected winds blew the rocket a long distance into tall trees, where it remains, along with its unrecovered data.

"Exploring remote environments on any planet is very hard to do, and many robotic missions are lost on their first attempts. These setbacks can be costly and agonizing, but the engineers and scientists always gain invaluable experience for the next time around," Watters said. "In this sense, every project in ASTR 202 was a huge success and every team persevered to achieve remarkable things."

Catherine Piner '16, an English and economics major who had no previous experience building rockets or working with electronics, agreed. The night before HAWK launched, she and her group faced a shocking number of setbacks, she said. "Despite those setbacks, no one ever was pessimistic," she said. "When our sensors weren't recording data we recoded; when the camera hole was too high up, we taped it shut and drilled another one. The rocket was going to fly, and we knew we could figure out how to make it happen."

Dulce Maria Gonzalez '16, a psychology major, echoed those sentiments. "As my High Altitude Balloon team (HAB Solo) and I created the project proposal for our probe at the beginning of the semester, building our very own HAB seemed intimidating," she said. "Fast-forward to May, we launched our HAB with a tether at the athletic fields on campus, and we were so proud that all of our sensors and instruments functioned properly. In the future, I will not hesitate when presented with an opportunity that might involve unfamiliar skills."

Such remarks delight NINJA Gibson, who helped Watters develop the course after she learned how to program the Raspberry Pi during the fall 2015 semester. "I absolutely loved seeing students from all different academic backgrounds work together on these really awesome science projects," she said. "Everyone brought their own unique talents and perspectives to the projects." One student, for example, was an avid sailor, and her knowledge of knots was instrumental in helping the high-altitude balloon groups' launch go smoothly. "I don't think the class would have been as successful without that kind of brainstorming and skill sharing," said Gibson.