US students mine for water at NASA’s ‘Mars Ice Challenge’

Washington: As part of plans for long-term human survival on Mars, NASA this week held a competition in which students from seven US universities demonstrated various drilling technologies to extract water from simulated Martian subsurface ice.

The three-day ‘Mars Ice Challenge’ was held at the Langley Research Center in Virginia from June 13-15.

The students — divided into eight teams — used drills, augers and an excavator positioned over large fishing coolers to get through about 16 inches (a half-metre) of simulated Martian soil to reach solid blocks of ice about 16 inches (a half-metre) deep.

The teams also built their innovative drilling and water extraction systems, designed according to mass, volume and power constraints.

The projects are “based in reality to what NASA wants. When we give those challenges to students, they’re able to start solving them in their unique way”, Shelley Spears, Director (education and outreach) at the National Institute of Aerospace, said in a statement on Saturday.

“We were all really excited about this project. We wanted to give it a shot,” added Wes Thomas, a student from University of Pennsylvania.

Recent discoveries have revealed large ice deposits just under the surface of the red planet, which have prompted scientists to work to turn that ice into water, to help allow a sustained human presence on Mars.

“NASA has really been focused on trying to get all the pieces in place to get to Mars,” added Richard Davis, Assistant Director (science and exploration) at NASA.

“There’s a lot of resources on Mars, but water is the driver. There’s a ton of water on Mars,” Davis noted.

The student teams included two from West Virginia University in Morgantown, and on one each from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, the University of Texas in Austin and Alfred University in Alfred, New York.

The students also submitted a technical paper outlining their concept’s adaptability to show how their system could be used on Mars and how it could be modified to account for the huge differences between the two planets.