A "kickstart" to accessible asteroids

HEO Robotics Team
HEO Robotics Team

(Originally posted on 8 November to UNSW Mechanical Engineering News)

Sometimes, smaller research projects need a “kickstart” to get off the ground, and a recent project by William Crowe, a PhD Candidate from the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, has found success through Kickstarter. Will’s project grew from a paper he wrote in 2015, which won him the Move an Asteroid award. His paper required information about recent close-flying asteroids, which are important because they “are the most easily accessible from Earth, making them the most advantageous for conducting science and mining”[1]; Kickstarter email alerthowever, finding this information in a timely and usable format proved extremely difficult.

To combat this issue, Will and a group of UNSW engineers (nicknamed High Earth Orbit (HEO) Robotics) originally created an email-based system to make it easier to access recent data on close-flying asteroids.[2] Out of this collaboration grew a Kickstarter campaign called “Asteroid What! – Very Near Earth Asteroids”. This campaign was an effort to help the group “create accessible information about asteroids that fly closer than the moon” through interpreting the data in a speedy and comprehensible format. [3] This information was publicised on the “Asteroid What!” website, making it accessible to a general audience. The campaign was launched on June 3, 2016 and was successfully funded within 27 days!

We sat down with Will and asked him a few questions about this exciting project:

What inspired you to run this campaign?

The problem that started this project grew from a paper that I wrote last year, which shows that targeting asteroids that fly very close to the Earth would allow very fast mission times and would be far cheaper and, in some ways, less technologically challenging to design. I have found it difficult to learn about asteroids that fly super close to the Earth (closer than the Moon) - first, they are generally discovered only a few days before they fly past and second is that the information produced about them is a bunch of numbers and so is difficult to visualise without further processing. A bunch of other engineers associated with the school and I have put together an email-based system to make it a lot easier to see. It turned out to be pretty fun to know more about the asteroids passing by, so we turned to crowdfunding to see if other people out there were interested too - turns out that this is the case!

What improvements/impact do you think your project will have on future research?

This is a useful tool to increase the time between when we first know about close passing asteroids and when they do pass. I think that the bigger success of this campaign is in increasing the number of people who find the information accessible now and then get excited about space exploration, especially regarding asteroids.

After the success of this campaign, would you run a follow up to improve/develop your original project?

This campaign was small specifically because we didn't know what interest was out there. Crowdfunding certainly has potential to help bring ideas to life that are interesting but would otherwise face a long wait for grants or other funding. We have had a few ideas for follow-on projects.

HEO Robotics was recently incorporated as a company. For projects on the horizon, they are building a “Robot-on-a-chip”, which is “an Arduino board, without the need for bulky and messy shield add-ons.”[4] When making robots, these boards are typically composed of many pieces and wires, which is expensive, power inefficient; these overly complicated boards are prone to vibrating, potentially causing malfunctions. This board makes development of robots and autonomous devices more convenient by integrating the processing and necessary sensors and motor drivers onto a single board. This yields a reduction in size and increase in power efficiency. Essentially, the “Robot-on-a-chip” can be used as the brain and the power for building new robots, but is more compact and power efficient than previous models. Stay tuned for further details on this exciting new project!

Congratulations to William Crowe and the HEO Robotics team for their efforts to make space exciting and accessible to the public!

HEO Robotics Group

[1] High Earth Orbit Robotics. (2016, June 3). Asteroid What! - Very Near Earth Asteroids. Kickstarter. Retrieved from https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/559654604/asteroid-what-very-near-e...

[2] W. Crowe, personal communication, July 27, 2016.

[3] High Earth Orbit Robotics

[4] W. Crowe, personal communication, November 4, 2016.