A Mines team came in second of just eight finalists in a NASA competition to design and build a system to extract water from the subsurface of Mars, and their ideas have a chance of making it into space.

The Mars Ice Challenge is a special edition of NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) brand of competitions. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of NASA Langley Research Center this year, the eight chosen teams were awarded $10,000 each to construct prototypes and demonstrate them in Virginia.

Petroleum engineering majors Steve Benfield and Justin Kilb were in charge of the drilling subsystem. However, their prototype actually uses an auger, a drill that includes a blade to bring material up, unlike the systems used in oil drilling today.

Mechanical engineering major Michael Szostak, geophysical engineering student Kenneth Li and freshman Giorgio Cassata are tasked with designing and building the icebox, which collects the cuttings, melt the ice
and filters out the dirt, all while the drill operates. “Seventy percent of the competition is how much water you deliver,” Szostak said. “We’ll also be penalized if any large particulates end up in the water.”

Caroline Ellis, a student in engineering physics, led the electronics and programming subsystem team, which includes mechanical engineering students Tatjana Tschirpke and Taewoo Kim.

The team had originally planned on using a Raspberry Pi minicomputer to control the system, but after consulting with various experts made the switch to a different device and programming language.

Mechanical engineering students Tyler Perko and James Wood translated theory they’ve learned in
the classroom directly to the project 
as the mechanical subsystem team. “I’ve been taking machine design and advanced mechanics and materials, and we’ve been talking about the same things that we’re working on,” Perko said, and the project revealed that learning about something and doing it isn’t always an easy transition.

“Welding is a lot harder than you would think,” Perko said. “We probably practiced welding aluminum for a month before we started trying to weld the chassis together.”

Advising the group was Angel Abbud-Madrid, a research associate professor in mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Space Resources at Mines.

“The whole point of this competition is for students to suggest ideas that NASA might actually pursue and get to use,” Abbud-Madrid said. The emphasis is on obtaining resources for astronauts who may travel to Mars in 2030 and beyond.

The final competition took place June 13-15, 2017, at NASA Langley.