Clemson Research May Someday Travel to the Moon

November 13, 2008

CLEMSON, SC – November 13, 2008 –  If NASA’s ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer) robotic vehicle ever travels across the Moon’s surface, it may do so with the aid of Clemson student research.

Michelin, a Clemson University partner, is testing its new non-pneumatic lunar wheel on the next generation of Moon rovers in Hawaii as part of a NASA Lunar Analogs testing and evaluation event. Some of the elements of that Michelin tire/wheel combination come directly from research conducted by Clemson students.

“It’s exciting to know that Clemson student research on treads and wheels could be an integral part of a possible manned mission to the Moon,” said Clemson mechanical engineer and researcher Joshua D. Summers. “It is incredible what students can do if they are given the opportunity.”


Low Temperature Tire Endurance Testing System designed and built by Clemson University at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Clemson researchers and Milliken & Co. were challenged by Michelin to measure wear and traction of textile tread leading to the ability to improve tread materials that may someday be used on NASA Moon rovers. The MICHELIN Lunar Wheel is based on the technology of the award-winning MICHELIN Tweel, which also includes creative, innovative design features developed by Clemson undergraduate students in fall 2006.

ATHLETE is capable of rolling over undulating terrain and walking over extremely rough or steep terrain so that robotic or human missions on the surface of the Moon can load, transport, manipulate and deposit payloads. The tread and wheels have to be flexible yet tough.

“Michelin collaborates with Clemson on a variety of projects, and the MICHELIN Lunar Wheel project provides a prime example of local industry and academia working together successfully,” said Bart Thompson, Michelin innovation engineer. “Clemson engineering students are full of enthusiasm and have been instrumental in supplying design principles that we currently employ in the MICHELIN Lunar Wheel.”

The research grew out of a senior design class project in 2006 sponsored by Michelin and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where graduating Clemson senior mechanical engineering students worked on developing proof-of-concept solutions to creating non-polymeric shear bands, metallic replacements for a rubber wheel. A $1.4 million project funded for three years by the NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) resulted and is led by Summers and his group, which includes professor Paul Joseph of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering professors Vincent Blouin and Christine Cole. Researchers are designing their own test equipment and developing computational models to design tire-sand traction systems that could eventually lead to improved tread material.

Four faculty members, two post-doctorate students, eight graduate students, 12 undergraduate students and five high school students are working or have worked on the projects.

“We now have the challenge of developing high-traction and high wear-resistance solutions that will last for 50,000 miles in temperatures ranging from minus 380 to 260 degrees Fahrenheit,” Summers said. “Moreover, the lunar sand is highly abrasive like shattered glass because there is no wind on the moon to erode and smooth the corners. We have a daunting challenge ahead.”

Beshoy Morkos and David Stowe, two graduate students who were part of the original senior design team, are up for the challenge.

“Given its difficulty and the implied future value — possible inclusion on a future NASA lunar mission — it was unprecedented for students to be given such responsibility,” said Stowe, who has worked on the project for three years.

“Incorporating graduate students within NASA missions cannot be underestimated,” added Morkos. “Experiences such as these prepare students for a future in new frontiers.”

NASA is testing the MICHELIN Lunar Wheels on other robotic vehicles, such as the Small Pressurized Rover that will allow two astronauts to explore hundreds of kilometers from the lunar outpost and the Scarab rover that will prospect for ice in the lunar craters. A standard interchangeable wheel that can be used on all lunar rovers will reduce the number of spare parts that must be launched from Earth. NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program is developing these rover concepts to support construction of an outpost on the Moon in 2020.