Alumni shoot for the moon, win multiple awards at global space conference

What struck me most was the size of the community and how much knowledge there was.

UBC Mechanical Engineering graduates Sam Bunka and Charmaine Neufeld have won three awards for two presentations they made at the 2021 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) held in Dubai. The IAC is the leading global conference for space technology, attended by the likes of NASA and Elon Musk. They developed the papers from their mechanical engineering capstone project completed spring of 2021, in which they designed an antenna pointing mechanism for a small moon rover, working under the guidance of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

As classes were being held online due to COVID-19, many of the projects submitted by MECH 45X industry sponsors were analytical or digital, but Bunka and Neufeld’s capstone team were interested in building a physical prototype for their final project. Bunka reached out to the CSA, and the agency gave the team the challenge of designing a mechanism that could point a directional antenna towards the earth while being compact and light enough to fit on a micro lunar rover. The capstone team (nicknamed “the Comoonicators”) designed a rotating platform that could be tilted upwards to the correct angle needed, which was less than 1/10th the size of the mechanism used on the Mars Perseverance rover, weighed less than 3.8 kg, and required minimal power. Bunka and Neufeld transformed their project reports for class into two presentations outlining their design, and addressing its industry case and applications in the space sector. As recent alumni, they attended the conference alongside students and recent graduates from the University of Toronto, Carleton University, and Concordia University. At the conference, both of their presentations won awards:

Technical Paper: “An ultra-low profile high-gain antenna pointing mechanism for micro lunar rover platforms” (abstract)

Project Management Presentation: “Telecommute to the moon: A case study in managing undergraduate engineering projects without access to resources” (abstract)

Neufeld also submitted a paper she had written specific to her interests in propulsion, “Investigation of Numerical Modeling Methods for Liquid Fuel Combustion and Applications for Small-Scale Bipropellant Liquid Rocket Engines.” Speaking about the experience of attending the IAC, Neufeld noted:

What struck me most was the size of the community and how much knowledge there was. Coming from UBC, with a relatively small space interest, [I] didn’t realize the scale of interest in new technologies in specific fields (like… combustion research and…propulsion).

Similarly, Bunka discussed what an expansive experience the conference was to the young engineers and scientists they encountered:

“Charmaine and I went to talk with the host agency, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre about their new lunar rover, and within a few minutes we were speaking with the head scientist of the program, who was similarly interested in our project. Lots of students and young professionals would find jobs within a few days of meeting people.”

The duo set out to gain experience in the space industry while studying remotely during a pandemic, and ended up winning multiple awards at the world’s biggest space conference. Learn more about the Comoonicators’ design in their 45X Capstone presentation, “A Low-profile Attitude Mechanism for Directional Antennas.”

The final design of the team’s antenna pointing mechanism