Bright first-years work on lunar solar panel deployment

Posted on October 18, 2022


A group of second-year Engineering students are still over the moon about the chance they had to work with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) this past winter.

It all started as part of the first year Engineering course APSC 100, where all first-year engineers are grouped up and given a challenge to tackle. Groups of five to six students are assembled based on what each individual student picks as their preferred project out of a list of options. Once the groups are assembled and the work is complete at the conclusion of the term, a winner is chosen out of the dozens of groups and they receive the coveted Mason Cup.

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United by their shared interest in space and a chance to work with the CSA on a real-world project, Katherine Crosbie, Amy Browne, Charlotte Kimmins, Rohan Kumar, Gavin Riley, and Matthew Arpas each selected a CSA project which sought designs for a solar panel deployment mechanism as part of a potential lunar rover. This mechanism would deploy the rover’s solar panels during the day and retract them during the night.

“There were a few aerospace-related projects, but this project offered the opportunity to work directly with the Canadian Space Agency,” said Kimmins. “I thought it was an excellent opportunity to learn from some of the best and brightest in the country and get to work on a really cool project.”

The project kicked off in January and concluded towards the end of the winter term with a final presentation and report to the client. Over those 12 weeks, the students invested a minimum of five hours a week each on average into their project, with some later weeks peaking out around nine hours of work. The group used that time to work on their design, proof of concept, presentation, and final report.

The project harnessed the different skills and interests of the group members, which ranged from mechanical engineering, engineering physics, applied mathematics, robotics, computer-aided design (CAD), and a small amount of coding. All team members worked on the project’s mathematical modeling while some researched specific topics like past lunar rovers and issues like thermal radiation. Crosbie functioned as the team’s leader and chief organizer.

The team was additionally supervised by a fifth-year project manager and a representative from the CSA with weekly updates, guidance, and problem-solving support.

As their research showed, getting a solar panel to deploy successfully on the moon involves a lot of hurdles. In addition to radiation concerns, the group had to consider how to keep their mechanism from fracturing in the extreme temperatures, manage statically charged lunar dust, and many other technical questions.

In producing their proof of concept, the group also ran into challenges in procuring the pricy space-grade muscles that would help their mechanism move, and had to find a flexible material that would help the piece lift and lower the panels while enduring space conditions.

“Most of the 3D printing options we were looking at would be too rigid,” said Kimmins. “We found that thermoplastic polyurethane would be a good flexible silicone-like material that would work, but the 3D printers that we had access to did not have the ability to heat it high enough to melt it and then print with it. So, we 3D printed the mold for the compliant mechanism and injected the silicone caulking from there.”

Upon presenting to the client, the team’s project was named first overall out of the entire APSC 100 class. The CSA requested copies of the group’s reporting and documentation at the conclusion of the project. The timing of this project and their success was especially exciting for the team, as the Canadian government has shared plans to send a Canadian-made rover to the moon in the coming years.

While the group members have now continued in their Queen’s Engineering studies and largely moved into separate specializations, they remain grateful for the experience both working with the CSA and working together.

“If your team works well, you're going to be successful,” Crosbie said as her advice to students taking ASPC 100 in future years. “It doesn't matter what project you end up getting…if you work well as a team, it's going to work out.”