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Video transcript
Candid with Sahar Azizkhani

My name is Sahar Azizkhani. I’m working on my bachelor’s degree at the University of Manitoba in mechanical engineering. I’m now working with U of M STARLab, lead by Dr. Philip Ferguson, on a project lead by PhD student Morgan May. We’re pretty much looking at how we can improve motion on other planetary bodies for rovers and other vehicles.

What challenges do rovers face on other planetary bodies?

Rovers are really the key to our exploration of other planetary bodies. A lot of the problems that we’re having is that the climate is different, the terrain is different than Earth, and we’re not really there to command the vehicle so the movement has to be autonomous. So if there is a problem with getting stuck or with slippage there is a challenge with the vehicle realizing it’s slipping or getting stuck.

How could rover navigation be improved?

I think the first one for us is having it actually identify that it’s stuck and also some movement methods, and maybe in the future thinking of some of the ways that it can change the shape of its wheels in order to get out.

Why focus on the moon?

I think we’re currently focusing on the moon just because we simply didn’t have the technology to do so before. With the overlap between the technology getting to where it is now and climate change happening and getting so serious in the past few years, people are really starting to look outward into some alternative places for living.

What would living on the moon look like?

What I would like it to be like is mostly for research purposes and universities being able to actually sponsor missions for students that would be interested. That would kind of give everyone an opportunity to get their voice out there. But I also do see it becoming a tourist thing as well.

I’m thinking that there would be a larger station that we would have up there. Maybe we’ll have the ability to go and pick up the soil, bring it back, and we would be able to grow things and garden. It opens a whole new realm of possibilities—to find out what plants can grow on the moon.

But I’m just talking. I have no idea how we’re going to even get there but with the technology we have now I’m saying at least we can envision it pretty well. We can see where it could go.

What does Sahar Azizkhani think about when she looks at the moon? “A second chance,” she says.

The mechanical engineering student is working in UM’s Space Technology and Advanced Research Laboratory, or STARLab. Its mission: to make space accessible through technology development and innovation.

With the effects of climate change going full tilt, Azizkhani is among those with a growing curiosity about life in places other than Earth and what that could look like.

She’s helping to figure out how autonomous vehicles can better navigate planetary bodies like the moon without getting stuck—and, if they do, how they can get unstuck on their own. To troubleshoot the mechanics, first you have to recreate the terrain.

What parts of the moon’s surface are you focused on?

We are concerned about terrain that has fine and soft soil that the rover could sink into. We know the chemical makeup of the soil but what it feels like and how it would react under the wheel is a totally different thing.

Some people are using things like poppy seeds to simulate the softer Martian soil, which is super interesting. I’m pretty fascinated with Mars as well but making it habitable would be a challenge because of the long winters and sandstorms.

Do you think we’re going to destroy our planet?

I think it’s moreso that the planet is going to re-set itself. I think the Earth would pretty much go back to nature, with a lot of natural disasters to get there. It would be great for the Earth but bad for us.

Does that scare you?

Absolutely. I feel like we’re getting more and more young people who are very passionate about it and speaking up, getting into politics because of it.

Why did you choose mechanical engineering?

My English wasn’t great. Numbers are pretty universal so I thought that would be a safe place.

As a kid, I would be very fascinated with house appliances. I would sit in front of the washing machine and just stare at it and picture, like, little gears and pullies and stuff working in there to make this possible—something I would see in cartoons! And I would try to guess how it was working.

I was totally off, because I had no understanding of electronics, but I was just really thinking from a mechanical perspective.

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