Mines Team Takes Second In NASA Mars Ice Challenge

Caroline Ellis, Michael Szostak and Justin Kilb work on their water extraction system. Image Credit: Colorado School of Mines

July 10, 2017 – Colorado School of Mines took second place in a NASA competition to design and build a system for extracting water from Mars’ subsurface, and learned plenty of lessons along the way.

The Mars Ice Challenge, which had its final competition June 13 to 15 at NASA Langley in Virginia, is a special edition of NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) brand of competitions. Student concepts are normally confined to papers and presentations, but to celebrate the 100th anniversary of NASA Langley Research Center this year, eight teams were awarded $10,000 each to construct ice extraction prototypes.

Out of those eight teams, Mines had the lightest system and was one of only two to actually collect water. They also took zero “mulligans,” or any physical interaction with their system while it was running, such as unjamming a pipe or reconnecting cables. The team also received the award for “Most Media Coverage” for their engagement with NASA employees and competition visitors.

“This is a reflection of not only the superior engineering skills of our students, but also of their written and verbal communication skills,” said the team’s advisor, Angel Abbud-Madrid, research associate professor in mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Space Resources at Mines.

Water extraction made up 70 percent of the teams’ overall scores. The technical paper accounted for 20 percent, while the poster presentation was 10 percent.

The team, which dubbed its project Hidden Ground-Water Extraction Low Load System, or H.G. Wells, did well despite a few challenges. One was not realizing early on that the distance from the device’s platform to the top of the ice had been increased.

“This forced us to change our strategy from fewer deep holes to more shallow holes,” which required the team to spend time adjusting settings instead of drilling, said team leader and petroleum engineering major Justin Kilb.

“I think we did amazingly well at identifying potential problems, design flaws and possible missteps,” said engineering physics major Caroline Ellis, who led the electronic and programming subsystem team. “I think we failed to follow up and mitigate some of those, which is something I hope to be more aware of in future projects.”

Ellis said she learned how essential effective communication is when working on a team. “Additionally, I learned to lose my fear of asking questions!”

“I had an awesome time getting muddy in the name of science,” said mechanical engineering major Michael Szostak, who was on last year’s RASC-AL team and this year worked on the system’s icebox. “The overall competition was muddier than we thought, but that led to on-the-job brainstorming, which really challenged us.”

Szostak said the competition imparted lessons about time management and prioritizing the ordering of parts—how to work on a deadline.

The team also included freshman Giorgia Cassata; Kenneth Li, geophysical engineering; Taewoo Kim, Tyler Perko, Tatjana Tschirpke and James Wood, mechanical engineering; and Steve Benfield, petroleum engineering.

The difficulty of drilling in Earth’s atmospheric conditions, with a team of four able to immediately interact with the drilling system, gave the team an idea of how challenging it would be to do so remotely from 55 million kilometers away in Mars’ hostile environment.

“Resource extraction on other worlds is going to be more difficult than expected, and a scalable, adaptive and robust architecture is needed,” Szostak said.

“When the Mars Curiosity rover takes photos on the surface of Mars, you don’t realize how unfriendly the environment truly is,” Kilb said. The team had to write a report explaining how a system for Mars would be different from their Earth prototype.

“Colonizing Mars is a tremendous challenge,” Kilb said. “To spend a week surrounded by people who have spent their lives pursuing such an ambitious scientific endeavor was truly inspiring.”