Students Participate in Mars Ice Challenge at NASA Langley

For humans to survive on other worlds, they’ll have to harness the resources – like water – that exist there. A recent competition held at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, aimed to find ways of doing just that.

Dozens of students from seven U.S. universities traveled to NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to see if their projects could extract water from simulated Martian subsurface ice.

The RASC-AL (Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkages) Mars Ice Challenge was a special three-day competition June 13-15 that focused on technology demonstrations for in-situ – or in place – resource utilization capabilities on Mars to enable long-term human survival.

“Mars is really the holy grail in our generation of what we’re looking for,” said Shelley Spears, director of education and outreach at the National Institute of Aerospace, which administers the event.

Improving these capabilities will be a focus for NASA over the next few decades, and the Mars Ice Challenge offered a unique way toward getting there.

“NASA has really been focused on trying to get all the pieces in place to get to Mars,” said Richard Davis, assistant director of science and exploration at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Science Division in Washington, D.C.

Despite decades of study, “there’s so much we don’t know about Mars,” he said.

Recent discoveries of what are thought to be large ice deposits just under the surface of the Red Planet have NASA engineers working on ways to turn that ice into water, which would help allow a sustained human presence on Mars.

“There’s a lot of resources on Mars, but water is the driver,” Davis said. “There’s a ton of water on Mars.”

Follow the water

“We were all really excited about this project,” said University of Pennsylvania student Wes Thomas. “We wanted to give it a shot.”

Thomas’s team was among eight that used drills, augers and an excavator positioned over large fishing coolers to get through about 16 inches (a half-meter) of simulated Martian soil to reach solid blocks of ice about 16 inches (a half-meter) deep.

“It’s pretty interesting to see the different approaches everyone else took,” he said.

The university teams built their innovative drilling and water extraction systems. But there was a catch – the systems had to be designed according to mass, volume and power constraints.

The projects are “based in reality to what NASA wants,” Spears said. “When we give those challenges to students, they’re able to start solving them in their unique way.”

The eight teams included two from West Virginia University in Morgantown, and on one each from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, the University of Texas in Austin and Alfred University in Alfred, New York. Each team also had faculty advisors.

The students had varied reasons for participating in the challenge – but they said they learned something new about Mars and what it will take to get there and stay there.

“We definitely romanticize it,” said Colorado School of Mines student Caroline Ellis.

Before the students got to work, they were warned that Mars is nothing like they’ve seen in the movies or on TV shows.

“It’s a very harsh environment,” said Kevin Kempton, program element manager at NASA’s Game Changing Development Program Office. “Your equipment will be chugging away for maybe years at a time doing all of these operations.”

“It’s all about learning and adapting,” said Patrick Troutman, Human Exploration Architecture Integration lead at NASA Langley.

Troutman and Langley Deputy Director Clayton Turner gave NASA Acting Deputy Administrator Lesa Roe a tour of the challenge, which was held in Langley’s research aircraft hangar.

“This is awesome,” Roe said as she marveled at the students’ work.

It was more than just a drilling technology demonstration the students had to undertake – they also submitted a technical paper outlining their concept’s adaptability to show how their system could be used on Mars and how it could be modified to account for the huge differences between the two planets.

“Engineering really prepares you for this stuff,” said West Virginia University student Eric Loy. “It’s just problem solving.”

And the winner is …

Loy’s team, whose project was titled the Mountaineer Ice Drilling Automated System, put that problem-solving ethos to good use and won first place in the competition.

Bringing in new perspectives and ideas is more crucial than ever to pull off a mission to Mars, Davis said.

“When you get a bunch of students who are not constrained by some of the ways we’ve done things in the past, you’re going to get answers that are really exciting,” he said.

The Mars Ice Challenge was held in conjunction with Langley’s centennial celebration activities. The facility was the country’s first civilian aeronautics laboratory, established in 1917.