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Bigelow Aerospace Aritcle; Thinking outside the bingo box

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Tue Dec 12, 2006 10:00 pm
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B-I-N-G-O! Aerospace Style

By Maijinn Chen; Payload Development & Integration Bigelow Aerospace; Bingo in space? This must be a Vegas idea.

From the land of slot machines in grocery stores and poolside blackjack comes the next generation of gaming — space bingo.

The Bigelow Aerospace-developed payload is the only bingo game of its kind. It is set to be launched with Genesis II in early 2007, and should be up and running by the middle of the year. This payload includes a unique enclosure design that reduces material weight while being structurally sound. It can autonomously mix and select bingo balls using a network of fans and solenoid activated levers. Its interior is adorned with space graphics and color lights set to the game cycle, and it houses 75 balls marked from B1 to O75. This is no blue-hair grandmothers’ plastic dome with a crank handle.

But gamblers take note: There is no gambling involved here. Bigelow Aerospace isn’t a casino. “The bingo payload is meant to generate interest in the Genesis II mission by providing the public with a relatable in-flight experiment,” said Casey Harr, a robotic engineer on the bingo design team. “Through the Internet, those browsing the Bigelow site can feel that they’re directly connected to the spacecraft.” Bingo has never been so cool.

The Game is On

Bingo games have been a staple in the Bigelow Aerospace company picnics every October, but most employees here never expected that the game would one day become space-bound. Mr. Bigelow launched the space bingo development project last year as a way to excite the public about the potential of space commercialization. The idea resided with the concept development group in our Houston branch for the better part of the year. Their working prototypes were then handed off to the flight design and production team in Las Vegas. The bingo project would not have happened without the two offices working closely together: critiquing each other’s concepts and conducting comparative testing to prove or disprove each design concept.

“The Bingo payload is essentially a small robot performing a game sequence,” said Wally Tuthill from the Houston team. It comprises a 14-inch cube enclosure divided into unequal halves by a central mechanism cartridge. The larger half-volume is the “mixing chamber,” where the bingo balls would float about in microgravity. Using strategically placed fans, the air flow channels the balls to randomly enter a ball tunnel one at a time — a cosmic hole-in-one. The ball sensor is triggered and a small camera mounted inside the cartridge takes a picture of the selected ball. A solenoid-activated lever then swipes the ball into the smaller half-volume, the “return chamber.” When 40 balls have been selected, the game is reset and fans blow the balls back into the mixing chamber via a set of opened doors.

Upon a command sent up to the vehicle from Mission Control, onboard computers will operate all the components and control the games, and store video images of the games until ground controllers are ready to download them via our satellite-to-ground communications systems.

People playing our space bingo online will also notice that it is true to its Vegas origin: It’s got bling. Having mechanical parts move on command was not enough. Engineers had to also become artists.

We didn’t just want to slap six plastic panels together to form a box. Instead, we designed an enclosure using a minimal number of parts and experimented with plastic bonding rather than metal fasteners. Our two talented builders, Jim McGeachy from Las Vegas and Patrick Sinnott from Houston, fretted as much over the precision fabrication and assembly of mechanical parts as the application of the decal graphics. Now, players can watch the balls floating to a background of planets and stars. Also installed was a series of light tubes inside the box, giving it a wash of colors whenever the game is on. The payload has always been envisioned as more of a commercial product — made from parts selected for both their aesthetics as well as performance, where form and function must strive to meet.

Hold Your Cards

Space Bingo has not been an easy payload from the start. A complex network of mechanical parts and electronics requires careful design for it to work in microgravity. A parabolic flight had been planned so we could conduct experiments in microgravity, but it didn’t materialize due to the scarcity of available flights. Instead, we had to conduct many ground tests to help us anticipate problems we might encounter in space.

We learned, for instance, that solenoid-activated levers and their linkage can bind after a hard shake, and sometimes work only in certain orientations. While the forces needed to operate the levers would be much smaller in microgravity, we didn’t want to assume the mechanism would remain operational after experiencing vibrations from the launch. To make it work, the team had to disassemble the payload many times to fine-tune the mechanisms both mechanically and electrically.

We also conducted many tests to see how to improve the mixing and selection of the balls. In microgravity, air only moves if it’s forced. Otherwise, stagnant air pockets would form at the corners of the box potentially trapping balls there. We studied the way our fans move the air within the box, using everything from feathers, helium balloons, and a smoke machine used at Halloween parties. The photos collected from the tests helped to determine ways to best channel air flow and direct ball movements.

Another problem that surfaced was the fact that the space bingo used a lot of off-the-shelf components that were not intended to work together. Proper integration of these parts for a unique aerospace application had been one of our biggest challenges. One case in point concerns the ball sensors. As Casey recalls, “Ball sensors were selected for their precision in recognizing balls. Lights were selected for their color and brightness. No one realized that the lights were the just the right color to cause the sensors to see a ball when there wasn’t any.” Many creative changes were attempted before we were finally able to correct the problem.

We Have a Winner!

After many months of hard work, the bingo payload has been successfully built and tested, and is currently mounted in the Genesis II spacecraft waiting for its scheduled flight. Our next step will be to further define how the public will play a game of space bingo on the Internet. Plenty of designing, planning and problem-solving will have to happen between the engineers, ground control, and the Web designers.

Although the success of the payload will be sweet, the team has already gained many valuable lessons from the project. Despite a few hiccups here and there, the Las Vegas and Houston offices learned to work as a team. We also learned that simplicity of design is crucial in aerospace, and that the path required to turn working prototypes into real flight hardware isn’t always straightforward.

“From the start, this system required some very unique solutions which allowed the engineers to think outside the box,” said Chuck Keierleber from the Bigelow Aerospace team in Houston, “That is what engineering is all about; setting lofty goals and letting the engineers dream!”

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