Building a Better Spacewalk

MERITS, a program of the Maine Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation, brings high school juniors from all over Maine the opportunity to complete a six-week paid summer internship to study a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) topic in a hands-on applied setting.  Yarmouth High School student Colby Ting came to Orono this summer as a MERITS Scholar to work under IMRC Center director Dr. Ali Abedi and the WiSe-Net Lab.

Colby told us about his project, and about how IMRC Center resources have helped him to be able to bring ideas to life.

Color-coded schematic notes on a whiteboard created by MERITS Scholar Colby Ting
Color-coded schematic notes on a whiteboard created by MERITS Scholar Colby Ting

Describe your current project: 

Through the MERITS program, I am designing a haptic feedback system for astronauts to aid their ability to move (ex. walking, running, skipping) in low-gravity environments, such as the Moon or Mars.

Astronauts require numerous hours of training for lunar surface spacewalks to grow accustomed to the limited mobility of xEMU (Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit) suits. Even with this rigorous training, astronauts fell numerous times on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions (back then using EMU suits). Tripping/falling on the lunar surface increases the risk of damaging life-support systems and the amount of wear and tear on the outer material of the xEMU suits by moondust—like tiny shards of glass. The risk of damage to xEMU suits increases on the surface of Mars, where the terrain is rocky and uneven.

A microcontroller wired to operate light and sound. The lights are inserted into a circuit board, while a blue microcontroller on the left is connected by red and green wires
A microcontroller wired to operate light and sound

The test unit I am developing uses a VCSEL (Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Laser) ToF sensor located on the boot of xEMU suits to provide readings of the distance between the boot and the nearest surface (up to 1.3 meters). The integrated vibration motors in the insole use this reading to provide increasing stimuli as the boot nears a surface. This feedback system will help astronauts have a better understanding about when to brace and prepare for the next movement, reducing the number of falls/trips that occasionally occur.

Since I had little experience with Arduinos and microcontrollers in general before this program, I decided to learn the basics of C++ and Arduino. Some of the circuits are low-level, such as the circuits blinking LEDs or using a potentiometer to change the brightness of an LED, and some are more complex, such as the circuit that uses a potentiometer to change the volume of a piezo speaker and displays the volume on LEDs. These test circuits have given me the confidence to work on my test unit and build other small electronic devices.

Why is the IMRC Center a good fit for your project?

In Yarmouth, I don’t have access to many of the parts and equipment needed to design and fabricate my project. The easy accessibility of resources makes the IMRC Center a phenomenal place to work on my projects. The IMRC electronics lab has a wealth of Arduinos and circuit prototyping components— not to mention two laser cutters. Additionally, the expertise and insight of [Operations Manager] Mr. Drew Hooke and [Research Engineer] Mr. Sean Taylor are extremely valuable, especially when my project occasionally hits a bend in the road.

If you could encourage others to check out the IMRC Center, what would you tell them?

To everyone wanting to learn more about fabrication, electronics, and audio-visual engineering, the IMRC Center is a great facility to explore those interests. You will not only meet Mr. Hooke and Mr. Taylor, but a host of other students who wish to learn more as well. The facility is fantastic, the people are amazing, and the equipment is first-rate. What more is there to ask for?

Thanks for the endorsement, Colby!  Congratulations on your successful MERITS experience.  Check out part of Colby’s testing below: