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WVU finishes second in NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge

A photo of Team MIDAS II.

Members of Team MIDAS II include (from left) Nathan Owen, Derek Roesch, Bert Wieliczko, Kermit Sah and Powsiri Klinkhachorn.

Not a leaking drain plug nor a blown water line could keep the MIDAS II team from West Virginia University from placing in NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge.


Led by Powsiri Klinkhachorn , professor of computer science and electrical engineering, the Mountaineer Ice Drilling Automated System team picked up second place and top honors for extracting the clearest water during the three-day event, besting the likes of MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Virginia Tech.

Held at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the Mars Ice Challenge tasks 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 regolith, a mixture of clay and gravel, approximately one meter deep. Teams competed to extract the most water from the ice station. The competition was won by first-time competitor Northeastern University.

While WVU won the competition in 2017, it wasn’t satisfied just sitting on its laurels. The team took the technology used to create MIDAS I a step further when creating MIDAS II.

“MIDAS I had two systems to complete its operation: one to plunge into the regolith and ice sample and another to heat and melt the water,” said Klinkhachorn. “MIDAS II combined both systems into one singular probe to go about its operations. The all-in-one bit included heaters, a pipe for water to go through and a copper tip.”

The all-in-one bit plunged into the regolith sample with a hammer drill and industrial-grade compact linear rail system. Once the predetermined depth was reached, heating cycles began to form a cavity, known as a Rodriguez well, within the sample.

“The Rod well’s shape keeps dirt out of the water sample and allows for the formation of plentiful water,” said Bert Wieliczko, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student from Holderness, New Hampshire. “We designed this system with all intentions set on Martian operations. The Rod well is the centerpiece of the operation.”

Additional changes included a better pump and blower, which allowed for clearer water samples, and MIDAS II was foldable, proving the process created by the team could easily be made portable, thus suitable for transport to Mars.

While day two of the competition started off well with all systems operating flawlessly, the team soon ran into problems.

“All systems were functioning like they did during testing prior to the competition. However, we did not accumulate as much water as we thought we would,” said aerospace engineering major Kermit Sah ( Honors College ; Lexington, South Carolina). “We assumed we got too excited with our first hole and pumped all the water out during the primary part of the heating sample.”

After running MIDAS II through multiple tests to ensure everything was operating properly, the team noticed water escaping from the bottom of the NASA-supplied ice box via a defective drain plug. Once the defect was corrected, the team went back to drilling, collecting 755.5 milliliters, nearly twice what they extracted in 2017.

Day three, which challenges the teams to operate the robotic system autonomously, saw muddy water clogging and ultimately blowing the system’s water line. After some minor repairs, the team unofficially collected more than three liters of water.

Over the course of two days, the team collected 859.5 milliliters of water.

“We collected the cleanest water and were able to show consistency during all operations,” said Klinkhachorn. “We are proud of the system we have built because it not only worked well during competition but it showed a unique and innovative way to allow for the extraction of liquid water on a Martian environment.”

Joining Wieliczko and Sah on the team were Dylan Johnson (Heaters), Eric Loy (Keyser), Nathan Owen (Fairfax, Virginia), Derek Roesch (Nazareth, Pennsylvania), Amanda Stevens (Inwood), Daniel Torti (Long Beach, New York), Nicholas Wallace (Roxboro, North Carolina), Andrew Wallace (Crownsville, Maryland) and Joseph Yeager (Summersville). Co-advising the team was Ilkin Bilgesu , associate professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering.

WVU’s second team, IS-ICE, the In-Situ Ice Chip Extractor, was led by Sean Lantto, an aerospace engineering major from Manassas, Virginia, and advised by Thomas Evans, research associate professor in the Department Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of the West Virginia Robotic Technology Center. Joining Lantto on the team were Kyle Dailyda (Egg Harbor City, New Jersey) and Jacob Winokur (Chesapeake, Virginia). WVU was the only university to have two teams in the competition.

During remote operations, IS-ICE was able to reverse its rig’s drill bit without touching the robot.

“We reversed the drill to clear a blockage in the auger,” said Evans. “The cutting bit got stuck and unscrewed itself. We then were able to position over the stuck bit and rethread it onto the auger by running the drill slowly.”

The team successfully extracted a slurry mixture but was unable to separate the water from the sample.

The teams were 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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