Senior Ben Harte’s Design for Mini Rover Wins NASA Award

by Linda Lenhoff | July 21, 2021
You could say Physics major Ben Harte ’22 is having an award-winning experience at Saint Mary’s College.

Harte, who was in Professor Alice Baldridge’s 2020 Summer Research Program Mission to Mars, was part of one of the winning teams of a NASA design challenge. The team won the NASA University Student Design Challenge 1, the Configurable Solar System Science Survey Exploration System—hosted by NASA Glenn research laboratory in Ohio—for their project creating a mini rover they called “Cory.”

“We’ve designed this little robot that’s rather small,” said Harte. “When it’s all packed up, it’s less than a meter by a meter. It’s this little configurable solar system robot. It can go to any planet in the solar system, and is designed to just survey using optical and mechanical means for a variety of systems. The hard part was designing it to function not only on things like Mars or other rocky bodies, but also on low-gravity rocky bodies like asteroids, so staying attached to something that isn’t pulling you toward it as fast as the Earth or Mars would be. Then it also had to function on gaseous and non-rocky bodies, such as Venus, where you can land on it, but then you’re only going to survive for like 30 minutes.

“We ended up designing the robot to be able to function on the ground but also kind of like a hot air balloon. It’s an inflatable balloon that functions above the bot that controls its altitude, and allows it to descend to take data, and then ascend to relay the data.”

“Because I’m part of Saint Marys, I have access to a library of physics and scientific documents through the websites that we have. That helped us a lot.”

Harte explained how the team took on the NASA challenge. “The team members worked across Zoom: Anyone from across the country can enter. Usually, it’s teams of students from  the same university, so they can work together. But we collaborated from across the U.S. I’m here at Saint Mary’s in Moraga, California. The other student members of our team are from Washington University, Arizona State University, UCLA, and UC Merced.

The Mission to Mars Summer Research Project gave Harte a solid basis for his work. “The research I did with Professor Alice Baldridge isn’t her usual research; it was kind of like, ‘We're in a global pandemic. We need to do something that you hopefully are interested in,’ Professor Baldridge went above by suggesting we design a mission to Mars. We were given constraints. From these constraints, we decided the best way to do it was to have a scientific investigation based on CubeSats, which are these very small, very lightweight satellites that go up in sets, most likely…. Not only did the project introduce me to CubeSats, it introduced me to the whole process of the design element of the whole thing, because I was in charge of the structures and the instrumentation.”

What’s next for Harte? “This summer, I’m still doing research with Professor Baldridge. We are hopefully looking at getting out into the field and doing some more interesting projects together. But I also work for IT, and I’m doing some research for Physics Professor Aaron Lee.

“After Saint Mary’s, I’m looking at graduate schools in Boulder and Toronto, UCLA, and Stanford. The University of Toronto would be amazing because they work with the Canadian Space Agency, and they have a lab to develop CubeSats that get shot into space. So ideally, that would be where I would go.”

For more information on the Summer Research Program, click here.