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WVU sending two teams to first-ever NASA Mars Ice Challenge

A photo of Powsiri Klinkhachorn with the two WVU Mars Rover Robots

Powsiri Klinkhachorn and Thomas Evans

Two teams from West Virginia University have been selected to participate in the first-ever Mars Ice Challenge, a special edition competition under NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage brand of competitions.


The Mars Ice Challenge is a technology demonstration competition that seeks revolutionary methods to drill into and extract water from simulated Martian subsurface ice stations.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.

Only eight universities in total were selected to participate and WVU is the only university to have two teams chosen. Joining them in the competition are teams from Alfred University, Colorado School of Mines, North Carolina State University, University of Tennessee, University of Texas and University of Pennsylvania.

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.

A familiar face, Powsiri Klinkhachorn , professor of computer science and electrical engineering, leads the first team from WVU: MIDAS, the Mountaineer Ice Drilling Automated System. Klinkhachorn and his students are veterans of RASC-AL competitions, having competed five consecutive times in the Robo-Ops Challenge, finishing first in 2014 and second in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Team lead Eric Loy, a master’s degree student in electrical engineering from Keyser, said team members were looking for a challenge when they heard the Robo-Ops Challenge was on hiatus.

“News of the Ice Challenge sparked the enthusiasm of the team, and we began preparations for entry,” Loy said. “I was really proud that the team was able to come together as a whole to create a proposal that made us stand out among the many applicants. For me, it is such an honor to be competing in another prestigious RASC-AL challenge. We value our relations with the RASC-AL committee members, and look forward to seeing them again next year in Virginia.”

Joining Loy on the team are David-Michael Buckman (computer engineering and computer science, WVU Honors College) from Inwood; Devyn Gentzyel (computer engineering and biometric systems) from Enterprise, Alabama; Matt Gramlich (electrical and computer engineering) from Hurricane; Maneesh Chandu Jasti (graduate student, electrical engineering) from Telangana, India; Zephaniah Kraus (mechanical engineering, Honors College) from Independence, Pennsylvania; Nicholas Mireles (computer engineering) from Fredericksburg, Virginia; Keegan Mueller (mechanical engineering, Honors College) from Shady Spring; Nathan Owen (mechanical engineering) from Fairfax, Virginia; Karan Sah (mechanical and aerospace engineering, Honors College) from Lexington, South Carolina; and Bertrand Wieliczko (electrical and computer engineering) from Holderness, New Hampshire.

Co-advising the team is Ilkin Bilgesu , associate professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering.

“Dr. Bilgesu and his team won the international Drillbotics Competition in 2016,” Klinkhachorn said. “We asked them to join the team and give us some suggestions on the best way to drill into the Mars surface.”

Klinkhachorn noted that while the system developed for the Drillbotics Competition isn’t suitable for the Mars environment, they did provide ideas related to the incorporation of automated drilling and water recovery into the proposal.

“I would also like to acknowledge, John Quaranta , associate professor of civil engineering , and students from the WVU Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers for helping us prepare and test simulated Mars soil samples as per ASTM International testing standards,” Klinkhachorn said.

Thomas Evans, research associate professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering, leads the In-Situ Resource Extraction System team. Team members include graduate students Wesley Edge (mining engineering) from Belmont, North Carolina; Drew Goodman (mechanical engineering) from Scott Depot; Sean Lantto (aerospace engineering) from Manassas, Virginia; Grant Speer (mining engineering) from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania; and Chris Vass (mining engineering) from Summersville. Undergraduate Matt Morrow (mechanical and aerospace engineering) from Ellicott City, Maryland, rounds out the team. The team is co-advised by Brijes Mishra and Aaron Noble from mining engineering.

“We are very excited to be selected and look forward to competing in NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge,” Evans said. “This is a great group of students that have also worked on multiple research programs at the West Virginia Robotic Technology Center. They did an excellent job developing a unique concept and presenting our approach in the proposal. They developed an innovative design that could meet system-level constraints of power, mass and volume in order for the technology to be applicable for NASA missions to Mars.”

Recent discoveries of what are thought to be large ice deposits just under the surface on Mars have NASA engineers working on ways to extract water from the ice deposits, which could enable a sustained human presence on Mars.

"NASA’s philosophy for quite some time in selecting destinations for human exploration is to ‘follow the water’,” says Robert Moses, aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “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.”

“Exploring and demonstrating methods to extract water from Mars ice deposits is the heart of this competition,” says Patrick Troutman, human exploration architecture integration lead at NASA Langley. “Participating team members will take on the role of astronauts on Mars who monitor and control drilling operations for water extraction. We are thrilled with the creative designs proposed by these eight teams and are excited to see their various methods and approaches in action.”

The teams are sponsored by the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources , the West Virginia NASA Space Grant Consortium, the Lane Department, the Department of Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering and the West Virginia Robotic Technology Center. The teams also receive a stipend from the National Institute of Aerospace, which co-sponsors the competition.



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