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A&E Exclusive: Two-By-Two: Time capsule featuring laser engraving, sublimation heads to the Moon

A team of Carnegie Mellon University designers are creating an artistic capsule using industry applications to send to the Moon.

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MoonArk disk

*For more photos, see the MoonArk slideshow.

In the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, life travels two-by-two. Centuries later, a team of scientists and artists at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) are working together on a project to send a modern day “ark” to the Moon, implementing the same technology used in the shops of small business awards and engraving retailers thousands of miles away.

The Core

The Moon Arts Project, with a team of about 30 artists, designers, scientists and engineers, has conceptualized and created the MoonArk, which will take art and science hand-in-hand to the harsh realities of space. With advances in modern technology, the MoonArk hopes to be a lasting depiction of life on the polar end of the orb, CMU Associate Professor and Moon Arts Project Lead Dylan Vitone tells A&E magazine.

The Moon Arts Project is in the running to win the Google Lunar XPrize, which is offering $30 million to the first privately funded team to successfully land a robot on the Moon. As no non-government entity has yet to do this, there is no guarantee that the rover will succeed in making the 238,000-mile trip; however, CMU was named the winner of a Milestone Prize for meeting development benchmarks for flight readiness in December.

The Team

Vitone joined the core Moon Arts Project team of four members from the CMU’s School of Design about two years ago. Matt Zywica, Lowry Burgess, Mark Baskinger and Vitone meet once a week to determine how the pieces work together and to fill in the holes of the project. The design team is working in conjunction with its sponsors including: Arnano; 3rd Dimension Industrial 3D Printing; the International Gemological Institute; and General Dynamics Mission Systems.

The CMU Robotic’s Institute, based in Pittsburgh, is creating the lander named “Andy,” which will disconnect at a specific location once in orbit. The capsule, Vitone explains, has to withstand the extreme climate of 200 degrees above and 200 degrees below on a single Moon day. To hitch a ride on “Andy,” the MoonArk also has to be lightweight-only 6 ounces-no more than half a soda can, he explains. To achieve this, the artistic team turned to applications used in awards and engraving shops on a regular basis.

The Mark

The MoonArk features four chambers-called Earth, Metasphere, Moon and Ether-surrounded by an aluminum exoskeleton, Vitone explains. It’s been designed to feature data, images and physical evidence of art, architecture, design, music, ballet, poetry, and drama-all engaging in the most advanced science and engineering technology. “We got involved in making a conceptual art piece to change the narrative of space travel,” he says.

The MoonArk will contain “paintings” on metal foil and micro-etched sapphire disks carrying images of life on Earth, including depictions of the migration patterns of arctic seabirds and humpback whales. For the project, the team enlisted the help of professional engravers at Arnano to micro-etch the various visuals in platinum on sapphire disks for high resolution laser engraved images, Vitone explains, resulting in delicate looking objects. (Image 1) Each disk is slightly larger than a quarter. Housed in pairs, the disks comprise four chambers that measure 2 inches in diameter. The chambers will fit together like a totem pole connected by metal wires. (Image 2)

Using CerCo spray coating along with the laser-etching, the design will become a permanent contrast of black and white images, so that when the dye-sublimation- another technology the team will employ-breaks down, it will reveal the strip.

The Burst of Life

Against the icy, gray surface at the pole of the Moon, the capsule is designed to be a burst of color. The circled layers will feature dye-sublimated nickel images on top of the laser-etching. (Image 3) “We wanted (dye-sublimated) nickel images in color so that it stands out on the surface of the Moon,” Vitone says, explaining that the team is working with research and development laboratories to determine how to bend the coating so that the polymers are in a tight circle.

But the reality of this juxtaposition is that it will eventually fail. “When it’s 200 degrees above and 200 degrees below on a Moon day, making color last a long time is virtually impossible, but as it slowly breaks down over time, it works as a time-keeping mechanism,” he says. “Nothing is permanent, so we had to figure out what will last the longest in living color. We needed a structure that is light and will stay around as long as possible.”

The Countdown

Now that the artistic design has been conceptualized, the capsule will be sent off to be coated and laser engraved before the murals are dye-sublimated. “We wanted the metal images to be as permanent as possible, so we used laser-etching. We wanted color, so we used dye-sublimation,” Vitone says. “The hardest part was figuring out how to achieve those within the cruel realities of the Moon.”

The final stage for CMU’s design team will be a collaboration with General Dynamics Mission Systems in Falls Church, Virginia this summer to perform the project’s space-readiness testing. “We’ll have to test the physical stress to see if it actually works,” Vitone says. Its production should be completed this summer while the robotics team continues to work on the lander to haul the cargo. “We’re going to the Moon to leave behind something technologically advanced that represents humanity,” he says. “It’s a celebration of human capacity.”

The MoonArk is projected to launch in 2017.

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