Capstone Spotlight: Lunar Kinetic
The Berkeley MEng Lunar Kinetic capstone team is developing technology to tackle energy and materials distribution on the moon.
Each year, Berkeley MEng candidates embark on a two-semester capstone experience where they work with faculty or industry partners to bring solutions for real-world problems to life with engineering skills and leadership practices. Here, we place a spotlight on the capstone experience of the Lunar Kinetic capstone team.
About Space Kinetic
Space Kinetic was founded by Vu Vuong and Scott Ziegler. Scott proposed the student-led capstone project, Lunar Kinetic Energy Transmission, to solve energy distribution problems on the Moon after learning about NASA’s Break The Ice and Watt’s On The Moon Centennial challenges. Having worked in the space industry, Vu was attracted by the technology concept and its potential for paradigm-shifting impacts; thus decided to join forces with Scott.
The team went through a weekend course at Berkeley Haas called Startup Disco where they were introduced to the lean start-up concept and conducted customer discovery interviews to validate Space Kinetic’s business thesis. After validating industry interest and the commercial opportunities, the pair enrolled in UC Berkeley StEP 10-week accelerator program and finished top three out of over 20 start-ups. By the end of 2021, Vu andScott completed StEP, NSF I-Corps Bay Area, amassed over 60 interviews, and brought on three key advisors to help build Space Kinetic.
By February 2022, Space Kinetic was incorporated with the mission to accelerate space development by providing critical resource transportation infrastructure; bringing energy and goods to all space operations.
Below, we share an interview about their capstone experience so far.
This is the first year the Berkeley MEng is allowing student-initiated capstone projects. How did this project idea come to fruition?
Scott: I love space — I’ve been obsessed since I was little. When I was a kid I read just about every Star Wars book in existence and saw every Star Trek movie and show many times over. As I developed as an engineer I worked in different sectors, but was always thinking about space and its challenges in the back of my mind. When I found out I could propose a capstone project as part of my master’s program at UC Berkeley, I immediately zeroed in on space.
Over the years I had become familiar with NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System (NSPIRES); I would occasionally use it to explore different problems NASA was looking to solve and think through solutions as thought experiments. But as I started thinking about my capstone, I began looking for potential problems to solve.
I was captivated by NASA’s Break the Ice Challenge, which focuses on developing solutions for moon mining. While the challenge closure date would pass before my first semester even started, I couldn’t let this project go. The problems were fascinating — I explored different ways to address them, but kept coming back to an idea for transporting materials across the lunar surface.
I started to look for other projects where this idea would be useful. This search led me to the Watts on The Moon Challenge, which focuses on Lunar Power Distribution for Moon Mining. At that point, I was inspired by the realization that this one solution I had been developing could solve both challenges. I was now confident that I had something great.
While my conceptual solution neatly solved both problems (lunar power distribution and material transfer), it had sizable technical uncertainty based on an array of engineering factors. With the deadline for capstone project submission looming, I worked to prove the most significant uncertainties and determined the project to be viable. I proposed the project to the Director of Experiential Learning at the Fung Institute and had it vetted by a faculty member. With their approval, the capstone project was accepted and formalized.
The project’s scope is to determine the best specific technology for lunar power distribution and material transportation, then to build a proof of concept prototype that could be used to showcase this groundbreaking innovation.
What inspired you to choose this project as your capstone?
Vu: I’ve always been fascinated by space from a young age. My big brother actually introduced me to space by giving me a toy model of the Battlestar Galactica and by making me watch Star Trek and Star Wars with him. Growing up, I distinctly remember the day when the last space shuttle mission, STS-135, landed back on earth, ending decades of exploration. Although my knowledge of space wasn’t much back then, there was always a thought in the back of my mind that this wasn’t the end of space exploration.
As I entered my engineering journey, and later worked in the aerospace industry, I realized how important space is for us. I believed in a multi-planetary future for humanity.
“I saw that fundamentally, human existence depends on space development in the long run for many reasons; from technological advancement to sustainability, space helps better our life on earth.”
This belief keeps me motivated and grounded, because I know my commitment for this field will contribute to the future generations. When I started the MEng program, I was intrigued by the idea of cable-less energy transfer. After listening to Scott’s pitch, I saw the unmatched potential of this technology, both in engineering and business. I thought about how much potential for space development could be posed by the innovation and scaling of this technology. Thus, I wanted to help realize this vision and joined the team.
Gary: Exploring space has always been my dream. When I was a child, I enjoyed looking at the sky at night because the view was so beautiful. During my high school, I participated in the International Space Settlement Design Competition (ISSDC) held by NASA and Boeing. In that competition, we were asked to design the space settlement on an assigned planet. As one of the champion teams, we were invited to compete in the global final at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That experience provides me the incentive and confidence to keep taking adventures in space related fields.
During my undergraduate engineering study, I learned lots of knowledge and skills in different fields which provided me the foundation for my future career. When I entered the MEng program, I was excited that there was a group focusing on space applications. For that reason, there was no hesitation for me to choose this project.
What are your team roles?
Scott: I am the capstone Team Lead and am responsible for the general technical progress of the capstone project. My work consists of leading the Research and Development (R&D) efforts for different technologies, developing the mechanical design of the prototype(s), and providing direction for technological development to the team.
Vu: I am the capstone Project Manager. In coordination with the Team Lead, I strategize the development schedule and set obtainable yet challenging technical milestones to ensure desirable development progress. For my technical role, I lead the control system aspect of the project and leverage resources to design and build system architecture, control structure and test capabilities.
Gary: I am the capstone Lead Engineer, I assist with building simulation scripts and providing technical feedback to the team. I am responsible for accurately simulating several aspects of the system’s physics using Ansys software. Beyond simulation and analysis work, I provide help in prototyping and assembly.
Scott, Vu, Gary: Working together as a team has helped us understand more about communication, goal setting, and collaboration. As a team, we have been able to move quickly and build our first prototype within four months, through our diverse skill sets, and clearly defined roles.
How do your undergraduate backgrounds and work experience help move this project forward?
Scott: My career spans the automotive, aerospace, electrical, and civil sectors, which has allowed me to hone my engineering skills in a variety of contexts. As a design engineer working in Eaton’s Electrical Sector, I managed global teams, and was responsible for high-profile orders and leading the charge for continuous improvement. In other engineering roles, I have supervised vendors, designed novel systems, and developed software improvements. I received my BS in Mechanical Engineering from Western Michigan University. My diverse educational and professional experiences allow me to create out-of-the-box solutions to out-of-this-world problems!
Vu: Prior to Berkeley, I received my BS in Mechanical Engineering from UC Santa Barbara and from there, I began my pursuit of aerospace engineering. I’ve always loved space technologies and my first job as a test engineer allowed me to get exposed to many space projects that were simply fascinating. I tested rocket engines, reflectors, satellites and many more. Soon enough, I found myself managing multiple programs, driving revenue growth, and expanding my professional connections across various industries.
After my first job, I moved to a Silicon Valley-based space start-up, Momentus, where I led the development of automated test systems for the R&D propulsion group. This experience really opened up new opportunities for me to grow. Through the fast paced start-up culture, I learned to be self-sufficient and took ownership of very complex projects. I gained significant experience in both project management and hands-on engineering needed for our Lunar Kinetic capstone work.
Gary: I pursued my undergraduate study at Purdue University majoring in mechanical engineering where I worked as one of the undergraduate researchers in Zhao Research Group. My research focused on the mechanical properties of materials, and it allowed me to get familiar with FEA simulation softwares such as COMSOL, ABAQUS, and Ansys. Besides, my senior project provided me the opportunity to practice my building skills by assembling a high-fidelity prototype. With these experiences, I am comfortable with testing physical aspects of the system by using these softwares.
How has the capstone experience influenced your professional goals?
Scott and Vu: The Lunar Kinetic Energy Transmission project has opened our eyes to some exciting professional opportunities, but we’re most enthusiastic about the entrepreneurship applications. In September 2021, we decided to take an intensive weekend start-up course called Startup Disco offered by UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. In this course, we learned the basics of the lean start-up method and applied it to our capstone project by conducting over twenty customer discovery interviews with space exploration companies and government agencies like NASA. These interviews were crucial in helping us learn more about the broader space ecosystem.
After the Start-up Disco course, we determined that we had a serious business opportunity and decided to continue the entrepreneurial journey by enrolling in the Student Entrepreneurship Program (StEP) at UC Berkeley. This 1.5-month-long program gave us the training, resources, and mentorship we needed to utilize our momentum and expand our skill sets, networks, and knowledge. We successfully obtained our first award from the Berkeley Seed Grant Fund at the end of the program.
After the conclusion of StEP, we participated in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Bay Area Innovation Corps (I-Corps), where we learned and applied advanced concepts to conduct customer discovery interviews. Although the program was only one week long, we conducted nineteen interviews and gained incredible insights into the industry.
After our masters programs are completed, we see our journey continuing through Space Kinetic Corp. We aim to be the leading integrated space utility and services provider to catalyze humanity’s multi-planetary future.
What encouraged your team to think beyond one application for your project?
Scott, Vu: The project is inherently space oriented. However, we are often asked about potential Earth applications of the system that we are developing. Because of this, we have spent many hours researching ongoing technological, social, and humanitarian needs where we can potentially find suitable value propositions that we can offer. We’ve also conducted extensive customer discovery through interviews with industry experts, scientists, and leaders.
We think it’s important to understand all aspects of possible applications for our technology. Fundamentally, our team feels that it’s important to develop technology that can produce measurable values to humanity both in the short and long term. By looking at this from both Space and Earth angles, we can fully understand, appreciate, and expand and sustain our capabilities in the long run.
What kind of impact do you want to have on the world?
As the future space energy utility provider, Space Kinetic will enable humans to reach for the stars and to pursue our need for exploration. Similar to the switch between wired internet connectivity and WIFI, Space Kinetic’s technology is at the core of this revolutionary switch for the energy sector, enabling cable-less, portable, and affordable energy service.
The immediate benefiting parties from this technology will be the governments, companies, and scientists who pioneer the new space age. As space traveling becomes more efficient and safe, future space travelers will also reap the benefits of an established and reliable system. Last but not least, future generations will be the true beneficiaries of this technology because they will be able to live, work, and learn from anywhere that Space Kinetic’s technology can reach.
Our founding group is diverse and we believe this representation in the frontier tech and space domains will achieve a greater impact on future generations. We aim to lead by example, inspire those of similar backgrounds, and promote diversity and inclusivity in building this start-up. By making this venture a success story, we can demonstrate that the limit of one’s success is only what they dare to dream of achieving.