Students plot plan to melt ice on Mars

NASA has selected a team from South Dakota State University among its 12 national finalists for its fifth-annual Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge.

Senior mechanical engineering students Matt Dentlinger, Arcadia, Iowa; Sajan Karki, Nepal,  Dylan McMahon, Watertown; Gabe Peters, Worthing; and their adviser, Todd Letcher, an associate professor in mechanical engineering, have developed a plan to extract water from the distant orbs and will spend the winter getting it ready for a simulated competition.

The semifinalists receive a $5,000 stipend to fund construction of their system with another $5,000 given to the 10 finalists selected in March.

SDSU is the only Midwest school to be chosen. Among the others tabbed include MIT, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Stevens Institute of Technology and Virginia Tech.

The finalists are tasked with designing, building and testing prototype systems capable of extracting water from ice deposits buried beneath the simulated lunar or Martian soil. They must drill through 2 feet of overburden – rocks, soil and concrete – to frozen tubs of water, melt the ice and then pump out as much filtered water as possible in 12 total hours.

The finals, conducted at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, is a two-day event with one day for hands-off operation and one day for hands-on operation.

In mid-March, teams must submit reports and videos showing the effectiveness of their proposals.

Unique touch, common technique

Letcher said SDSU had not previously entered. “We looked at the history of the competition. It seemed like the same 10 teams were getting into the finals every year. We knew we needed to do something special, something different, to stand out. We did initial testing of our concept and then wrote a proposal.” 

NASA announced the semifinalists Dec. 14.

The SDSU proposal centers on using the Rodwell Concept, a common technique used in places like Antarctica to melt water for drinking.

The concept call for drilling a hole, putting a heater in the hole and pumping the water out. “It sounds simple, but it really is complicated,” Letcher said. “How you raise and lower the heater changes the size of the hole. How fast you pump out the water changes the hole.”

What makes the SDSU proposal unique is the heater core design. Letcher said the 3D printed heater core will have swirling holes. The SDSU team will pump the water out and then return the water through the heater core with the water rushing out the swirling holes, thus expanding the size of the hole and increasing the amount of water that is extracted, Letcher explained.

He said it has been proven in small-scale testing. In the coming months, students will see how it works in a large tub – the competition ice block is about 18 inches thick.

Wishing for cold weather

“We’re probably the ones in the state hoping to have a cold winter,” Letcher said. They’re in the process of adding water to a large plastic tote that is stored outside, he said. In case the weather doesn’t cooperate, the mechanical engineering department does have a large freezer, he said. Testing of the drilling process will be done separately.

“We’re hoping we can combine them in later February” and prove what was proposed actually is a valid concept, Letcher said.

Dentlinger, who did other research work for Letcher in 2019, said, “The project is very appealing because space has always been super interesting to me, especially now that they are trying to establish a base on the moon. This would be a steppingstone for the problems they need to solve to do that.”

Capstone project for students

Peters said, “Most engineers get their start dreaming about working for NASA and I saw this an opportunity to fulfill a life-long goal. Water is incredibly important, especially in space, not just for drinking but also its ability to be split into oxygen and hydrogen, which are able to fuel humans and rockets, respectively.

“To have even a small part in achieving this task is incredibly significant especially as we move to exploring space.”

NASA has confirmed water on the sunlit surface of the Moon and ice at the poles in addition to extensive subsurface water-ice deposits at mid to high latitudes on Mars. “Being able to harvest and use that water is another feat. This innovation challenge aims to advance critical technologies needed to make it possible,” NASA’s chief technologist Douglas Terrier said.

The challenge is conducted in cooperation with the National Institute of Aerospace and the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage program.

For the SDSU students, the challenge is the senior capstone project for their major.

COURTESY OF: SDSU Marketing & Communications

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