The accolades keep pouring in for a student design team, for its design of an autonomous spacecraft that enhances itself via resources it gathers. Project Draupnir rose to the top in their theme, as well as taking first place overall at NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts — Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) forum in Cocoa Beach, Florida. 

NASA is always seeking out new concepts that leverage innovation to improve our ability to operate on the Moon, Mars and beyond. The annual RASC-AL forum provides a platform for the next generation of engineers to present their ideas and have a chance to apply what they learn in the classroom to address real world aerospace challenges.

“Virginia Tech has a long history of performing well at the RASC-AL forum,” said Kevin Shinpaugh, collegiate professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering and the team’s faculty advisor. “This particular group of students were highly motivated, put in the hours, and really looked at how to address the theme and produce innovation. During the forum, the team executed a very thorough and precise presentation and were able to quickly address the judges’ questions.”  

For 2024, finalist teams responded to one of the four RASC-AL themes, ranging from developing large-scale lunar surface architectures enabling long-term off-world habitation, to designing new systems that leverage in-situ resources for in-space travel and exploration. 

Fourteen university teams from across the country competed in a three-day long forum that included an intense design review to a panel of NASA and industry experts under one of the four themes. The forum seeks to engage undergraduate engineering students in NASA missions and inspire and drive innovation through experiential learning. 

Teams were evaluated on a technical paper, a 40-minute oral presentation, and a poster presentation supporting their chosen theme and mission objectives. 

Sweeping multiple events

Within the department of aerospace and ocean engineering, the undergraduate curriculum leads up to a year-long capstone design experience in the senior year. The group design process better simulates the way design is done in the real world and promotes the benefits of collaborative learning.

Project Draupnir was formed as a team as part of the space engineering track, which is annually taught by Shinpaugh. Their task for both their capstone design project and the RASC-AL forum was to develop an autonomous spacecraft that travels to multiple low-gravity bodies in the Asteroid Belt.


Members of Project Draupnir
Earlier this spring, Project Draupnir came out on top in both the department’s senior capstone design expo, and the Excellence in Design of Aerospace and Ocean Vehicles and Systems awards. Photo by Jama Green for Virginia Tech.

Once landed on the surface of an asteroid, the probe would both collect material to use for propulsion as well as material for scientific discovery. Project Draupnir chose to harvest water from the asteroid to turn into hydrogen and oxygen to be used for propulsion. The spacecraft is fully autonomous, refueling itself with the materials that it collects and extending its lifespan.  

“The group did a lot of analysis to minimize the power and amount of water harvested,” said Shinpaugh. “The system uses hydrogen and oxygen from the water they collected on the asteroid.  Hydrogen is used by the nuclear thermal rocket engine and hot gas thrusters.  Oxygen is used by a set of Hall thrusters.  The combination of these propulsion systems and propellants provide a good match between mission segments – landing on and departure from the asteroid, and orbital transfers to other asteroids – and minimizing the amount of power and water required.”

Project Draupnir earned first place in the space category at the aerospace and ocean engineering department’s senior capstone design expo in April. A week later, the team was victorious again when they were awarded the 2024 Prize for Excellence in Space Vehicle Design. The annual award, given by the department, is bestowed upon the most innovative capstone design team in astronautics. 

If this year couldn’t get any sweeter for the Project Draupnir team, RASC-AL has awarded the group a travel stipend to present their work at the 2024 AIAA Accelerating Space Commerce, Exploration, and New Discovery (ASCEND) Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada in July.

Project Draupnir team members include Lalit Adhikari, Josh Amato, Orion Date, Reed George, Daniel Harrison, Michael Plano, Jonathan Pokrant, Tyler Rhodes, Hady Solimany, Anthony Spinetta, Sujay Venuganti, and Soe Wunna.