Written by Mary C. Dillon
For the second straight year, West Virginia University will have two teams in the Mars Ice Challenge, a special edition competition under NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts — Academic Linkage brand of competitions.
Nine universities were selected to participate in the challenge, which seeks revolutionary methods to drill into and extract water from simulated Martian subsurface ice stations. Joining WVU are teams from MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, Colorado School of Mines, Virginia Tech, Northeastern University, Rowan University, University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Alfred University. WVU is the only university to field two teams.
To participate, interested teams submitted project plan proposals containing innovative designs for drilling and water extraction systems on Earth that could be modified for use on Mars.
The teams must demonstrate appropriate progress and successfully pass a mid-project review in April to be invited to NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for three days next June. While at NASA, teams will test their drilling systems on simulated Martian subsurface ice stations, solid blocks of ice covered with a mixture of clay and gravel approximately one meter deep. Teams will compete to extract the most water from the ice station.
Powsiri Klinkhachorn, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, will again advise the defending championship team, MIDAS II. The team captured top overall honors in the 2017 competition and also was first in both the most water collected and the cleanest water categories.
“MIDAS II will incorporate refinements rather than significant changes from our award-winning, MIDAS I,” said Klinkhachorn. “We expect MIDAS II to be a lighter and more efficient system capable of reaching the ice deposit, melting the ice, minimizing overburden collapse and extracting the subsurface water.” Joining Klinkhachorn as co-advisor is Ilkin Bilgesu, associate professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering. Eric Loy, who led last year’s winning effort, assisted the team with drafting the proposal.
The team will be led by Bertrand Wieliczko, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student from Holderness, New Hampshire. Joining him on the team are aerospace engineering majors Jacob Winokur (Chesapeake, Virginia), Amanda Stevens (Inwood) and Karan Sah (Honors College; Lexington, South Carolina); mechanical engineering majors Nathan Owen (Fairfax, Virginia) and Andrew Wallace (Crownsville, Maryland); electrical engineering major Derek Roesch (Honors College; Nazareth, Pennsylvania); and freshmen Emily Certain (Bay Shore, New York), Dylan Johnson (Honors College; Heaters), Elizabeth Matthews (Honors College; Martinsburg) and Illeana Tucker (Sleepy Hollow, New York).
WVU’s second team — the VULCAN Drilling System team — will again be advised by Thomas Evans, research associate professor in the Department Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of the West Virginia Robotic Technology Center. Joining him are graduate students Grant Speer, a mining engineering major from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, and Sean Lantto, an aerospace engineering major from Manassas, Virginia. Both were members of last year’s team, which finished third in the most water extracted category, and conduct research at WVRTC.
“While last year’s drill design tested a novel extraction method, this year’s method is much more mechanically simple, thereby minimizing points of failure,” said Speer. “During both the competition last year and some information sessions with the RASC-AL staff, the coring method ice extraction was highlighted as being the most efficient method of batch ice removal. We modified our concept to utilize the approach while creating a novel coring bit design to extract ice while also removing overburden through the use of drill stem flights.”
“We are also taking into consideration the effects of the Martian environment and have included well caps to cover the drill holes to prevent sublimation and potential collapse of the drill site,” Lantto added. “While sublimation is not a concern during the competition, it will be on Mars. Fortunately we have a good framework to work off of, and we learned what components/concepts did and did not work last year, so we expect progress to be made quicker this year.”
“Due to strong hydrogen signatures, Mars appears to be rich in water frozen under the Marian surface, making the Red Planet a viable destination for us,” says Melvin Ferebee, director of the Systems Analysis and Concepts Division at NASA Langley. “Water is there, but it is buried. It is absolutely crucial that we figure out a way to effectively and efficiently access that water. And the Mars Ice Challenge provides us with a variety of potential options to start solving that problem.”
Shelley Spears, director of Education and Outreach at NIA, says, “Mars is hard AND doable! This competition squares off one the most important hurdles we face in becoming a two-planet species — harvesting water — with top university student talent from around the nation. It is very exciting to offer this opportunity to them and witness both the passion and innovation they bring to advancing our journey.”