The students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach have developed a self-driving space vehicle to be used for unique missions on asteroids and far-flung planets.
(TNS) — Though not yet having graduated from college, two Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University students have founded a company aimed at building the Swiss Army knife of space ships.
But as ERAU seniors Francisco Pastrana and Patrick Serafin tell it, the real story isn't where they're at, it's where they're going. And as the business name Beyond Ares Technologies (BAT) states optimistically, that's to Mars or, perhaps, even farther.
As a prototype, the BAT Explorer weighs about 20 pounds and is little bigger than the seat of an office chair. Because it's self-driving and won't carry people, the ship doesn't need to be big, Pastrana said.
It's more about the ship's versatility than its size, he said, noting that, "interchangeability is key."
Here's why: Say, from a space station, that there are three missions nearby that need to be completed. One might require a powerful drill to bore into an asteroid's ice core; another needs a dexterous robot arm to repair a satellite; and a third needs a stable shovel to collect soil samples. In most cases, that would take three different ships and, depending on distance, three different trips.
The BAT explorer could reduce both needs, Pastrana said.
The ship's design allows major parts to be swapped out for whatever mission is at hand. This includes the engine that powers it.
One of the biggest problems with space travel is that fuel isn't readily available outside of Earth, and the team at ERAU is working on solving that problem, too. To do that, it plans to develop specialized engines for different environments.
"We would like to be able to use local resources to be able to power and propel our spacecraft," Pastrana said. "We don't want to carry huge tanks of fuel if we can just extract fuel from the location where we're going to."
Serafin gave an example of melting ice from Jupiter's moon Europa to create steam to power the spacecraft or using carbon dioxide, which is found in Mars' atmosphere, to fuel it.
While they first need to get to Mars, it helps to know what to expect. For that, the team is using a virtual reality program that uses actual maps of Mars in its simulated missions.
While practicing in ERAU's Engineering Physics Propulsion Lab, one student wears a set of VR goggles and tells the ship what to do while another supervises and makes sure the ship is operating correctly, Serafin said.
The goal now, as it would be in space, is to conduct a successful simulated mission from a safe site. From there, a set of instructions would be sent to the ship allowing it perform the actual mission, Pastrana said.
While the mission would be safer because people wouldn't be on the ship, the group aims to corner the market by focusing on another aspect businesses care about: the bottom line.
To do that, the students plan to create a scalable design of multiple ships ranging in size from as small as a drone to as large as a bus. Because the ships could be customized, the extra expense of unneeded parts is reduced, thus saving on costs, Serafin said.
About 15 students have teamed up to work on the project for the last three years, Pastrana said, adding that sometimes students have spent as much as 20 hours in the lab.
Pastrana said the company's short-term goal is to join ERAU's business incubation program and continue fine-tuning the project. From there, he said he'd like to try and secure contracts with NASA, the Department of Defense, or even Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, whom he met last year when an ERAU payload was sent to space.
One the first markets that the students are looking to break into is the upgrade or replacement of satellites, which are showing their years.
"In the telecommunications industry, a lot of those satellites predate the internet when they were designed," Serafin said.
Once the team perfects ships that can work in Earth's orbit, it hopes to make a giant leap and expand operations beyond the neighborhood.
"We really are creating the future," Serafin said. "The technology we're developing in the lab today is going to be used for applications way beyond our horizon or atmosphere."
©2019 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.