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MIDAS brings home the gold in NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge

A picture of the MIDAS team in front of their robot.

MIDAS team members Jacob Winokur, Devyn Gentzyel, Bertrand Wieliczko, Powsiri Klinkhachorn and Eric Loy

West Virginia University was the only school in the nation to send two teams to NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge, a three-day event that challenged teams to extract water from simulated Martian subsurface ice. In the end, one team—Mountaineer Ice Drilling Automated System or MIDAS—had the golden touch.


Led by team lead Eric Loy, a master’s degree student in electrical engineering from Keyser, and advisor Powsiri Klinkhachorn, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, MIDAS captured top overall honors in the competition besting the likes of teams from Colorado School of Mines, University of Texas-Austin and University of Pennsylvania. The team also was first in both the most water collected and the cleanest water categories.

Held at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the Mars Ice Challenge tasked teams to create innovative designs for drilling and water extraction systems on Earth that could be modified for use on Mars. Teams tested 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 competed to extract the most water from the ice station.

“The approach we took to this competition was one of thoroughness,” Loy said, noting the team worked with colleagues in civil engineering to conduct soil compaction studies and to inspect and analyze the rig for structural soundness at various stages in the weight reduction phase.

“We also partnered with faculty and students in the Department of Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering,” Loy added. “Their knowledge helped shape our drilling rig and showed us the importance of bit stabilization as well as relevant drilling techniques.”

The team’s strategy for the competition was to drill a hole into the simulated Martian soil and subsurface ice, melt ice for the majority of each day and then pump out all of the water near the end.

“The MIDAS extraction system was designed to be an all-in-one solution that consisted of everything needed to melt ice and pump water from within a hole bored by the drilling system,” Loy said. “There were some similarities in everyone’s approach, but, for the most part, everyone’s idea was pretty unique.”

On the first day of the actual drilling competition, MIDAS was able to extract 400 milliliters of clear water with a turbidity of 4.7. However, some simulated Martian soil fell into the water and clogged the holes in the tip of the heat sink/radiator before the team could finish pumping all the water. The team regrouped on day two, using the heat sink/radiator as a heat probe instead of drilling to target depth first and then deploying the extraction system.

“The heater was in contact with ice and water the entire time and heat transfer to the ice was more efficient,” Loy said. “A large amount of simulated Martian soil collapsed into the hole and turned to mud as we continued to heat. We didn’t know until the end of the day when nothing could be pumped out of the hole.”

The day one and day two totals were enough to secure the competition for MIDAS.

“We are glad to be the first to design and demonstration a system that is able to extract water under simulated Mars condition,” Klinkhachorn added. “The first drop of water extracted on simulated Mars belongs to WVU!”

Joining Loy on MIDAS were David-Michael Buckman (computer engineering and computer science, WVU Honors College) from Inwood; Adam Chandler (computer science, Honors College) from West Hamlin; Devyn Gentzyel (computer engineering and biometric systems) from Enterprise, Alabama; Matt Gramlich (electrical and computer engineering) from Hurricane; Scott Harper (mechanical and aerospace engineering) from Spencer; Nicholas Mireles (computer engineering) from Fredericksburg, Virginia; Jenn Nguyen (computer science) from Morgantown; Nick Ohi (mechanical and aerospace engineering) from Morgantown; Karan Sah (mechanical and aerospace engineering, Honors College) from Lexington, South Carolina; Jared Strader (mechanical engineering) from Morgantown; Jacob Winokur (mechanical and aerospace engineering) from Chesapeake, Virginia; and Bertrand Wieliczko (electrical and computer engineering) from Holderness, New Hampshire.

Associate professors Ilkin Bilgesu (petroleum and natural gas engineering) co-advised the team. Additional assistance was provided by Professor Hota GangaRao and Associate Professor John Quarantar (civil and environmental engineering).

Loy noted that auger style bits were popular in the competition. Other systems involved extracting ice cores and melting it externally, melting the ice shavings pulled up by the drill system through heating units or microwave technology, injecting hot oil while drilling ice and pumping out the results into a storage tank where water would naturally separate in the mixture and be collected, the latter being employed by WVU’s second entry in the competition, the In-Situ Resource Extraction System team.

“After reaching the ice, we would drill two-three inches into the ice to prevent any contamination by the soil. We would then begin extraction operations by pumping heated sunflower oil through the drill stem and into the ice while running the drill to melt the ice cuttings,” said Grant Speer, a graduate student in mining engineering from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. “Hot oil would pool in the borehole for a short time to maximize the volume of ice that could be melted before the oil became viscous. We would then pump the oil and meltwater out of the borehole and into a separation tank. The water and oil separated based on density and temperature differences, allowing us to then collect the water and recirculate the oil back into the system.”

The team spent several hours on day one of the competition troubleshooting electronic issues with the control system. Unfortunately, system checks failed to identify that a second pump was connected backward and that two valves were no longer operational. Speer added that the team could have used a more powerful motor to generate greater ice cuttings.

“Had we avoided these failures, I'm confident that we could have extracted more water,” Speer said. “Based on these lessons learned, the team is in a great position to improve on the system and go back next year with an even stronger approach and prototype.”

Klinkhachorn congratulated the In-Situ team noting, “I would like to congratulate (team advisor) Thomas Evans and the members of his team on their efforts. It was a hard problem to solve.”

For Loy, the Mars Ice Challenge signifies the end of a very successful career at WVU. He has been a member of a number of robotics teams, including NASA's Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkages or Robo-Ops Competition and the Mercury Remote Robot Challenge. He has finished his master’s coursework and is now working on his thesis.

“I am grateful for all my experiences with the robotics team,” Loy said. “I’d like to thank Dr. Klinkhachorn and the numerous team members that have made this experience very memorable over the past couple of years. I’d also like to thank WVU and our various sponsors, including the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, the Department of Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering and the West Virginia Space Grant Consortium for making these opportunities possible.”



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