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UAH third in U.S., sixth overall in University Rover Challenge

HUNTSVILLE — In its competition debut, the University of Alabama in Huntsville Space Hardware Club robotic rover team finished third among U.S. teams and sixth overall at the University Rover Challenge Finals in southern Utah.

The contest, held in the Utah desert June 1-4, included an extreme retrieval and delivery mission, an equipment servicing mission and an autonomous navigation mission.

In a scene that looks extraterrestrial, the ASTRA rover maneuvers at the University Rover
Competition. (Peter Bowers / Space Hardware Club)

The Adaptable Service Transport Research Apparatus (ASTRA) rover is outfitted with a dexterous main arm and equipped with cameras, a microscope and the hardware and chemicals needed to conduct tests to detect life.

“It is honestly the most rewarding feeling,” said Shelby Tull, the project founder and lead of the 21-member team. She graduated this year with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering.

“We finally got to put our rover – and years of hard work and dedication, blood, sweat and tears – to the ultimate test, and it stood up to the challenge,” said Tull, who hails from Nashville. “We placed among the veteran teams who we’ve looked up to as examples of what we wanted to accomplish, and this was just our first year.”

The URC, a project of The Mars Society, is the world’s premier robotics competition for college students. It challenges teams to design and build the next generation of Mars rovers that may work alongside astronauts exploring the red planet.

Under URC rules, the rover must fit inside a cube-shaped space that is 1.2 meters on all sides, or almost 4 feet. Once deployed, the rover can expand. The SHC team’s rover footprint is 1.19 x 0.9 meters and 1.19 meters tall when stowed. It weighs 103.4 pounds

Tull said the toughest part was having to troubleshoot the rover during each mission.

“For example, during the autonomous navigation mission, one of our mission critical sensors completely failed,” she said. “Our software lead, Areeb Mohammed, had to reprogram the rover’s navigation software during the already limited mission time in order to make the rover functional again.”

At other times in other missions, the team couldn’t fix the rover and had to make do. So, critical engineering decisions were made on the spot.

“This is analogous to the real world,” Tull said. “You might have a spacecraft that has a failure, and you have to troubleshoot it completely remotely from Earth.”

Andrew Adams, a senior in mechanical engineering who was the chief engineer and who has been elected team lead for the coming year, said lessons from the entire project lifecycle abounded.

“This project demands a high level of interdisciplinary work, so I was able to gain experience in project management, mechanical and systems engineering,” he said. “From these, the greatest lesson I learned was to be adaptable and persevere through adversity.”

And to “test everything,” Tull said. “And test harder than the actual mission will be.”

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