Cockrell School of Engineering
The University of Texas at Austin

NASA made a significant discovery in 2015 that has the potential to alter our ability to live beyond Earth, making some science fiction a reality.

Scientists found strong evidence that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars, increasing the chances of the Red Planet serving as a permanent home for humans in the future. Furthering that finding, NASA recently discovered what are thought to be large ice deposits just under the surface of Mars.

With this information, NASA turned to the best and brightest college students with a strong knowledge of drilling to participate in its first-ever Mars Ice Challenge. The University of Texas at Austin’s petroleum and mechanical engineering graduate students as well as a research scientist took advantage of the opportunity.

Breaking down their drilling robot and packing it into suitcases, the UT Austin engineers left the Forty Acres for NASA’s prestigious Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. They participated in a three-day program, June 13-15. The competition, the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkages (RASC-AL) Mars Ice Challenge, aimed to enhance the ability to recover water on Mars, enabling humans to live on the planet.

“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. “There are a lot of resources on Mars, but water is the driver.”

surface of mars web

The surface of Mars

The competition highlighted that the race to Mars will need an “all hands on deck” approach — including petroleum, mechanical and aerospace engineers. UT Austin mechanical engineering student Conor McMahon found it fascinating that an application for petroleum engineering has significance for aerospace engineering.

“They are two wildly different industries, with one focused above Earth and the other below the Earth’s surface, but some of the challenges translate to both fields,” McMahon said.

Teams from across the country submitted proposals, and only the best eight university teams were selected to take part in the final round of the Mars Ice Challenge. Before the drilling competition began, the engineers attended talks with NASA’s scientists and private-sector robotic companies.

“It was an amazing experience to hear leaders from NASA talk about where they think the water is on Mars and their thoughts on how to recover it,” said Ben List, a UT Austin petroleum and geosystems engineering graduate student. “It was nice to see that we are working on a high-impact project.”

In addition to the presentations, the students participated in a poster session. They had the opportunity to present their robotic strategy to the competition’s judges.

drilling on mars

List and McMahon presenting their research findings at NASA

“The judges are all involved in these drilling challenges, so they wanted to pick our brains about how we developed our robot and how it performs,” said List. “They are interested in the path-to-flight, so what design changes we would need to make it work on Mars. The judges want to ensure it is not just an Earth-based system.”

On the first day of the competition, the teams were tasked with setting up their robot and then receiving the all-clear from the judges. The rules required that the robots met all the mass, volume and power constraints.

The competition’s goal is to drill through 16 inches of simulated Martian soil and then through another 16 inches of solid blocks of ice. The team that could recover the most water during the challenge would win.

“There were some heated moments on the first day as we were doing a lot of trouble shooting,” said List. “We were able to drill through all the dirt on the first day, so we felt good about our progress.”

On the second day of the competition, the teams faced an additional challenge – they were no longer able to manage the robots by hand. They could only be remotely operated, making it a more realistic simulation.

The UT Austin team prepared for the second day by creating a simple system rather than taking the “bells and whistles” route. Their philosophy was “The fewer points of failure, the better.”

“We were in a great rhythm, drilling through the first 12 inches of ice, but then we reached our capacity,” List said. “Unfortunately our heater broke down as well. I think if it would have survived, we could have won the competition.”

Despite not taking home the golden robot, the students are proud of their work. They increased their leadership skills and ability to work under pressure, which will make them stronger engineers. McMahon said he is excited to see what the future holds for creating a base for humans on Mars.

“I think this is an important project. In the case that something catastrophic happens on Earth, we would have a back-up plan,” he said.