NASA looks to students to find water on Mars

A new sort of space race is upon us, and this time the finish line is on Mars.

With NASA planning manned-missions to the red planet in the 2030s, and Elon Musk envisioning a million-person Martian city, the goal of becoming a multi-planetary species feels within reach. But first, we need a plan for staying hydrated.

Scientists have confirmed that there appears to be water on Mars. The challenge is that most of it is stored as ice deep beneath the planet’s dusty surface, and accessing it requires drilling through a thick layer of dirt and melting the ice.

Daniel McGann, E/CIS’20, knows all about the quest for water on Mars. He’s leading a team of Northeastern students selected as finalists for the 2018 NASA RASC-AL Mars Ice Challenge, in which groups are competing to build the best robotic water-extraction device. The Northeastern team’s proposal was one of ten chosen from a pool of 50 submissions from universities all over the country.

“The end goal of this is to extract usable water, not dirty water or brown water, but clean, usable, hypothetically drinkable water from this environment,” McGann said.

His teammates include Elisa Danthinne, E’21; Emmy Kelly, E’20; Rashad Khan E’21; Patrick Moore, E ’21; Andrew Panasyuk, E/S’20; Grace Peck, E/S’20; Fizzah Shaikh, E’21; Tucker Spencer-Wallace, E’21; and Ben Zinser E’21. Taskin Padir, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern, serves as the team’s faculty advisor.

The device the Northeastern team is building will be a fully autonomous robotic system. In the students’ proposed design, the robot is shaped like a large 3-D printer that includes a drill and an extractor. Both are attached to a positioning system within a metal frame. The drill will make a hole for the extractor, which is outfitted with a heating element, to glide down through a layer of dirt and into the ice. Once it has penetrated the ice, the extractor moves around, melting as it goes and pumping water back to the surface.

“We want to extract as much ice as possible,” McGann said. “We determined the best way to do that would be to drill as few holes as we can and expand our reach once we have actually accessed the ice.” The competition will test each device on a simulated Martian surface of dirt and an ice block half a meter thick.

As finalists, the Northeastern team must construct its prototype, produce a technical paper, and give a poster presentation. In June, the team will travel to the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to compete. NASA has awarded them $10,000 to build the device.

“What NASA really looks for with a small investment is to have a tap into the minds of the younger generations,” said Padir. “Our team had the perseverance from day one.”

For McGann, that motivation comes from an inherent love of the cosmos. “Personally, I’m just crazy interested in space,” he said. “I think I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since I was about 2 and still do, so really any opportunity I have to work with other people who are interested in space, anything to do with exploration, I can’t get enough of it. I know it’s true among a lot of people on the team. We’re all kind of space nerds.”