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NASA holds student competition for mining water on Mars


July, 2017
A. Solomon
Ed. M. DeHart
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Langley Research Center

Langely Research Center

Source: NASA via flickr

NASA’s goal to put man on Mars is a long-term process, complete with 3-phase planning and testing before man even sets food on the red planet’s surface. Although the Journey to Mars outline shows manned missions to Mars not beginning until the 2030’s, research and development is already underway. Future astronauts sent to colonize the red planet will have to rely on both what they bring with them and what the planet provides. Chief among those provisions is water. To find solutions for the martian water crisis, NASA turned to the public.  

RASC-AL, the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage, is an annual competition that features several themes ranging from “Airlock Design” to “Logistics Delivery Systems.” This year’s competition included the Special Edition Mars Ice Challenge. Students from all over the country were invited to NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia from June 13-15, 2017, to compete for the most effective design. The competition was comprised of eight teams, each coming from different collegiate universities around the country. The challenge was to see if the students could extract water from a simulated Martian subsurface. The task given to the students was to drill through about half a meter of simulated “Martian” soil, to then access ice blocks that were about the same depth.

The top two overall winning teams are awarded travel stipends to present their concept at aerospace conferences such as American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space 2017. “It’s all about learning and adapting, ” said Patrick Troutman, Human Exploration Architecture Integration Lead at NASA Langley.

The teams were challenged with mass, volume, and power constraints. Mars experiences cold temperatures, low-gravity, and radioactive rays from space. The in-situ designs had to be capable of surviving these harsh conditions for several years and meet basic parameters. Requirements for submissions also included a technical paper outlining their concept, user instructions, and adaptabilities for the Martian landscape.

“NASA has really been focused on trying to get all the pieces in place to get to Mars,” Richard Davis, Assistant Director of Science and Exploration at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Planetary Science Division, state. This competition wasn’t just for the experience of the students, but also for the benefit of NASA. Shelly Spears, Director of Education and Outreach at the National Institute of Aerospace, added that the projects are “based in reality to what NASA wants.”

A team of students from West Virginia University won first place in the competition with their contraption titled the “Mountaineer Ice Drilling Automated System” or MIDAS. The system started by drilling two to three inches into ice and then pumped heated sunflower oil through the drill stem into the ice to melt the ice cuttings. The hot oil would then pool at the bottom of the borehole, melting the ice. Before becoming too viscous from cooling, the oil and meltwater would then be pumped out and into a separation tank. Differences in density of the two substances caused natural separation. The water would be collected and the oil would be circulated back into the system for reuse.

This challenge coincided with the centennial celebrated for the Langlely Center, which was the first civilian aeronautics lab in the U.S. Moving forward, continual research for Mars exploration is highly intensive and anticipated. Because of this, NASA appreciates any intelligent innovative thinking they can apply. NASA will be looking for more resolutions from young thinkers as preparation continues to colonize the red planet.

Water on Mars Credit: NASA/JPL

Map of Water on Mars

Credit: NASA/JPL

  1. http://www.totalmateria.com/page.aspx?ID=CheckArticle&site=ktn&NM=237https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-05-30/miners-frozen-out-as-south-africa-readies-new-empowerment-rules
  2. http://www.mining-insight.com/industry-trend-analysis-south-africas-mining-recovery-be-short-lived-apr-2017
  3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/06/15/miners-ready-legal-challenge-south-africa-publishes-mining-charter/
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  5. http://www.mining-technology.com/features/featurecoal-giants-the-worlds-biggest-coal-producing-countries-4186363/


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