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Just beneath the crust of Mars’ surface lies a valuable resource—subterranean ice deposits. Since water is the main ingredient in rocket fuel, being able to harvest the ice for in-situ resource utilization would make space exploration to the red planet much easier. Why carry heavy fuel through space when you can just make an extraterrestrial pit stop?

NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace first challenged groups of students with harvesting Martian water with their Mars Ice Challenge in 2017. This year Carnegie Mellon engineering students were selected as one of the ten finalist teams who would compete in Hampton, Virginia.

The Tartan Ice Drilling System (TIDS) team was comprised of 15 students spanning various majors in the College of Engineering. The team was advised by Aaron Johnson, a MechE professor who specializes in robomechanics, and MechE Ph.D. candidate Catherine Pavlov, a previous NASA researcher.

The system was designed to work as a series of processes that required little human involvement. First, a drill rigged to an XYZ positioning system cored into the dirt. Then, it removed a chunk of ice from the dirt and brought it to an induction heating chamber. Once the ice was placed inside, the coils surrounding the chamber ran electrical current to heat the chamber. The ice would melt, evaporate, and then be cooled to re-condense as usable water at the collection bucket.

Paula Zubiri (MechE’19) oversaw the creation of the XYZ positioning system which controls how the drill enters the dirt. A large challenge was dealing with high rotational velocity and torque in the middle of their system which was only a few square feet. “A lot of my MechE background deals with analysis of, not just structures, but how different objects interact,” she said. She worked closely with the leader of the drill group, Tim Cote (MSE’18). Cote chose materials that would suit a drill traveling to Mars, saying, “I can’t just throw a huge steel bar up on Mars because it’s too heavy.”

The drill group in turn needed to work with the water group led by Caroline Morin (ChemE/BME’18). Most of the other universities at the competition used auger drills to break the ice into small chunks before heating it and vacuuming up the water. The TIDS team chose to go for a cleaner method of water extraction, “thermal distillation where we will vaporize the water and then recondense it so that we are able to fully separate it from all minerals,” explained Morin. Heating and cooling methods would allow for less dirt build-up in the machine and would not require filter replacements, which would be a task for an otherwise busy astronaut.

Devin Gund (ECE’18) and Christina Ou (ECE’19) together led the electrical controls system group. “It really matters ... what kind of computer we use and what kind of sensors we hook up because everything needs to be very small and power efficient but also extremely fast,” Gund explained. Having a wide variety of engineering majors represented on the team helped them to plan for a variety of problems that could arise during the competition, whether they were mechanical, chemical, electrical, environmental, or related to material properties.

Three of the group leads—Cote, Gund, and Morin—were able to travel to Virginia for the competition. They were joined by Johnson, their advisor, and Ishmael Mercier (ECE’20), who helped on the hardware side of the electrical controls system. Mercier also works in the Tech Spark, the maker space in Scott Hall where the team set up their base of operations.

Team members posing outside of NASA's Langley Research Center

Source: Tartan Ice Miners

(From left to right) Ishmael Mercier (ECE’20), Caroline Morin (ChemE/BME’18), Devin Gund (ECE’18), Tim Cote (MSE’18), Professor Aaron Johnson

“The maker space was very gracious in giving us this space to work,” Mercier explained. “The machinists in the maker space, they’re awesome,” he added, referring to the expertise which staff and student workers shared with the team in terms of fixing bugs and finding parts to order.

The TIDS team successfully extracted a chunk of ice during the competition, navigating through the thick dirt that stalled other teams’ progress when it got wet and became clay-like. Although TIDS was not able to melt, evaporate, and condense the ice chunk into water in their allotted time, the team hopes to improve upon their methods and compete again next year with a similar but improved system.

Mercier has yet to graduate, so he looks forward to working on TIDS again next year. “Our plan for this [next] year is to actually design all of our parts from scratch in the maker space,” he says. The team also hopes to do more complete systems tests in the hopes of being selected again as a finalist in this prestigious and educational competition.

Additional members of the team included:

  • Jordan Aaron (MechE’19)
  • Simone Hugh Sam (ChemE’18)
  • Emily Newman (CS’19)
  • Cesar Quinones (MechE’19)
  • Andres Ramirez (ChemE’18)
  • Nikki Scavone (MechE’19)
  • Joe Taylor (MechE’19)
  • Kam Undieh (MechE’19)
  • Boyao Yu (MechE’19)