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Drill Design Could Have Future On Mars

June 22, 2010

A team of University of Alberta engineering students has proven themselves other-worldly with their winning design for a machine meant to work on Mars. After sweeping the U of A’s mechanical engineering student design awards, the four-member team took the National Design Excellence title this month with a robotic drill for taking core samples of the red planet.

“Winning the nationals in Victoria was our goal from the start,” said team member Nicolas Olmedo. “We asked our instructors for a very tough design assignment, and we got it.”

Michael Lipsett, a U of A mechanical engineering professor and team advisor, says a Mars core sampler has every challenge imaginable. “The planet has very harsh conditions, and the design has to be light, low-power, and robust, because it’s a long way away for a service call if something goes wrong.”

Lipsett is expecting that the Canadian Space Agency will soon announce a new call for proposals for a core drilling unit designed for Mars. “The prototype would be tested at a Mars analog site, a place like the high Arctic that approximates conditions on Mars,” said Lipsett. “American and Canadian companies that build robotic devices for the CSA and NASA will be looking for core-drilling technology and the U of A will be ready.”

In addition to Olmedo, the U of A mechanical engineering student design team includes Stephen Dwyer, Jamie Yuen and Jessica Patzer. The prospect of contributing to a device that could go to another planet is what intrigued Patzer about the challenge. “This could be the first step towards a U of A- designed core sample going to Mars in 2018,” she said.

Earlier this spring, U.S. President Barack Obama refocused NASA’s space exploration plans.  New rover missions to Mars are planned for 2018 to prepare the way for a long-hoped for manned mission sometime after 2030.

Because it takes a spacecraft about six months to get to Mars, space agencies believe a manned mission will require the crew to spend time on the planet. Lipsett says a drilling unit will be essential tool for the safety of human visitors. “You can’t do reliable habitat construction if you don’t know the characteristics of the rock and soil,” said Lipsett. He explained that an extended stay on Mars would require the crew to be self-sufficient, which means exploratory drilling deep into the planet. “Eventually they’ll need to do some mineral extraction to produce basic chemicals for building materials, propellants, and even fertilizers.”

After more than 30 exploratory missions to Mars by Russia and the U.S. with orbiting satellites and surface landers, there is still no final answer on whether or not life has existed on the planet. Lipsett says drilling for core samples is necessary to answer the question. “Any organic material at the surface has been degraded by the constant bombardment by radiation,” said Lipsett. “We’ll have to go deeper than that to find evidence of life.”

The U of A’s Mars driller design team knows that when a core-sampling unit eventually reaches Mars, the answer to the question of “life” will be a high priority. Team member Olmedo looks forward to the answer. “It would be the achievement of a lifetime if we could in some way contribute to determining whether there is life on another planet.”

By Brian Murphy, University of Alberta

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