Students From Colorado School Of Mines Explore Methods Of Drilling For Water On Mars

Eight university teams have accepted the first ever Mars Ice Challenge – to devise innovative ways to drill for water on the Red Planet. Image Credit: NASA Langley Advanced Concepts Lab/Analytical Mechanics Associates

December 12, 2016 – Teams from eight universities, including the Colorado School of Mines, have taken up NASA’s challenge to solve a Mars exploration dilemma – how to drill into large ice deposits and unearth water.

“NASA’s philosophy for quite some time in selecting destinations for human exploration is to ‘follow the water’,” said Robert Moses, aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “Results of our Mars mission campaign studies continue to illustrate how critically important the water is on Mars for making the fuels and crew consumables, including spare parts, needed on Mars and when returning to Earth. Any mission to Mars without the ability to access the water is simply unsustainable and too risky.”

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.

Diagonal striping on this map of part of the Utopia Planitia region on Mars indicates the area where a large subsurface deposit rich in water ice was checked out using an instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. According to scientists the deposit is estimated to hold about as much water as what is in Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Rome/ASI/PSI

And now NASA has turned to students to drill down into their ideas in the first Mars Ice Challenge – a special edition under NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) brand of competitions. The Mars Ice Challenge asked students to devise revolutionary technologies and methods to drill into and extract water from simulated Martian subsurface ice stations, consisting of solid blocks of ice and clay missed with ice, about three feet (one meter) deep.

Interested university teams proposed project plans for innovative drilling and water extraction systems that could be used here on Earth and modified for use on Mars. But there was a catch – the systems had to be designed according to mass, volume and power constraints.

Eight teams, including students on two teams 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, will build their proposed designs and compete against each other to extract the most water from their simulated Martian subsurface ice stations. That competition will happen over three days next June at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

“Participating team members will take on the role of astronauts on Mars who monitor and control drilling operations for water extraction,” said Patrick Troutman, Human Exploration Architecture Integration lead at NASA Langley. “We are thrilled with the creative designs proposed by these eight teams and are excited to see their various methods and approaches in action.”

Besides the actual drilling technology demonstration, students will also submit a technical paper outlining their concept’s adaptability to show the judges how their Earth-based prototype could also be used on Mars and how the system could be modified to account for the huge differences between the two planets operational environments.

The Mars Ice Challenge is being held in conjunction with NASA Langley’s centennial celebration activities. The Hampton, Virginia, facility was the country’s first civilian aeronautics laboratory, established in 1917. The competition’s organizer, RASC-AL, has served as part of NASA’s talent pipeline as well as an idea mine for many Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) projects since 2002.

According to officials at the RASC-AL program team at the National Institute of Aerospace, also in Hampton, the competition is a good way to showcase NASA Langley’s growing role in understanding and advancing In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) approaches and technologies. Improving those capabilities will be a focus for NASA over the next few decades, and the RASC-AL Special Edition: Mars Ice Challenge offers a unique way to engage the national university community in NASA Langley’s 100th anniversary.