As it turns out, the theme of the second edition of IGLUNA – “A remote-controlled space habitat” – was aptly fitting under the current circumstances. Coordinated by the Swiss Space Center, as part of the European Space Agency’s ESA_Lab@ initiative, IGLUNA focuses on designing technologies that will help astronauts live in space.
Starting in September 2019, 150 students from 10 European countries put their expertise and creativity to the test. They worked on topics such as how to design living spaces, produce oxygen, food and electricity, navigate and communicate with Earth, maintain physical and mental health, and conduct scientific experiments.
A special year
“For 2020, we raised the bar by introducing remote-controlled operations,” says Tatiana Benavides, project manager at the Swiss Space Center. “This reflects the reality of space exploration: missions to the moon will begin with robots that are remotely controlled from Earth.”
The students were originally scheduled to meet up in Luzern from 10 to 19 July. To simulate extreme environments like the Moon, their prototypes and experimental designs were to be installed on Mount Pilatus and piloted from a control room at the Swiss Museum of Transport.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, forced the team to rethink the event. “We were caught off guard and had to learn as a group how to organize a virtual campaign,” says Benavides. She and her team provided support for participants as things changed, giving them advice and tips for their presentations.
The new format, however, had a silver lining: the online presentations not only allowed everyone to take part, but also fostered greater student involvement. “In 2019, due to time constraints and the distance between the two campaign sites in Zermatt, some people were unable to see the other projects,” says Eva Buchs, IGLUNA communications officer. “This year, the teams could connect via YouTube live chat and see what everyone else was up to!”
Each team was given one hour to present its project to the general public as well as aerospace professionals. The SWAG team from the Zurich University of Applied Sciences unveiled its system for growing plants without soil, a technique known as hydroponics, or soilless culture. The students used human waste to provide plants with necessary nutrients, while a closed loop ensured that water was used sustainably. They developed customizable LED lighting and created an environment conducive to plant growth, all of which is monitored by sensors and controlled by an intelligent system.
“We believe the time has come to reuse satellites, in the same way as rockets,” says Mayank, head of the Celestial project. At the Technical University of Berlin, Mayank and his team have been developing their own antennae and satellites fitted with a communication system that is operable in space and that can be remotely reconfigured for various missions.
Is there life in outer space? To find out, the LDMS for Life team from the University of Bern has been working on ORIGIN, a compact, lightweight and easy-to-use instrument that detects biosignatures and performs chemical analyses of planetary surfaces. The team also built the rover that will carry ORIGIN and installed a cryogenic cooling system on the device to simulate the extreme conditions of space.
Rounding out the 2020 edition, three teams were honored during the IGLUNA Space Awards ceremony. AMPEX, Celestial and PowerHab distinguished themselves by the excellence of their accompanying documentation, their ability to find sponsoring, their team spirit, the structure of their presentations and their involvement across the ten days of the campaign.
Back to the future
“Students take part in IGLUNA not only for the experience, but also with an eye to their own future,” says Benavides. “There is the educational side, as well as a chance to network with aerospace professionals, and lastly, technology transfer.” For example, the Celestial team just launched a startup, and GrowBotHub (now an EPFL association) has been fine-tuning its prototype – a robot that grows and harvests plants automatically and without human intervention – since last year.
IGLUNA 2021 will be even more demanding, with an expanded “business” component. The Swiss Space Center is currently reviewing applications and will announce the list of participants in mid-August.