Students compete in NASA design contest

Ten USC Students are participating in this year’s Moon to Mars Ice and Prospecting Challenge, an annual competition sponsored by NASA in which teams of students create tools to extract water from Mars and the moon. (Daily Trojan file photo)

When building a prototype to extract water from the Moon and Mars, a team of 10 Viterbi students worried about having enough money to buy material to build their project. 

In March, they will reach the halfway mark for a NASA engineering design competition. 

The annual Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts — Academic Linkage college competition: Moon to Mars Ice and Prospecting Challenge required teams to design and build a prototype to extract water from the Moon and Mars. 

The team, Trojan H20 Extraction System and Evaluation of Underground Services, is the first from USC to compete in the challenge. The students outlined and built a system that they hope will be able to find ice by drilling through the lunar and Martian surface for water extraction.

David Barnhart, director of the USC Space Engineering Research Center, serves as the adviser for the team and is responsible for coordinating its funding with University administrators. Barnhart encouraged the team to take part in the competition. 

“Student teams are successful and are sustainable based upon the passion of the students themselves,” said Barnhart, a research professor in the Department of Astronautical Engineering. “This year, both teams … are made up of very passionate and motivated students.”

Sindhoora Tallapragada, who joined the team in Fall 2019 and now serves as the student team leader, said the team has been designing the water extraction prototype and ordering supplies since January and started building the device in February. The team hopes to complete the device by March 15. 

“We weren’t sure we’d make it past the first day, but we did our best, and we’re all really excited to build the instrument,” said Tallapragada, a graduate student studying astronautical engineering. “The proposal and the building have been very different or have had two very different sets of challenges. The hardest part was getting the proposal together.”

The team was broken into smaller divisions to build the prototype drill which has several components such as the frame, the drilling unit that bores up to half a meter of topsoil and half a meter of ice, the heater which melts the ice and the pump that sucks out and filters the water. 

Michael Rhoderick, the leader of the drill team, has been involved in the project since January. He said it has given him plenty of hands-on experience by allowing him to work on a project outside of the classroom. 

“For me, engineering is such a legacy activity,” said Rhoderick, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. “There’s so much nuance that you can’t really understand just by sitting in the classroom — you only pick [it] up by going out in the field or going to the lab or the machine shop and getting your hands dirty.”

Each team received a $5,000 development stipend to build and test its water extraction system and present the physical device at NASA’s Langley Research Center in front of a panel of judges . To win the competition, teams must meet a set of criteria including product design, cost efficiency and feasibility. 

“Mainly, it’s about credibility,” Barnhart said. “Did they do a reasonable assessment from a design and or analysis standpoint? Is the project realizable with current technologies, or do you have to come up with new things in order to make it?”

The team has faced challenges in the past, including difficulties with budget costs to buy equipment and materials to build the prototype. This has since been resolved by redoing the design to lower purchasing costs, in addition to applying for government grants. 

“I believe in our design,” Tallapragada said. “I think it’s a good design, but I don’t know what the other teams have. This is also the first time USC is doing this competition while all the other teams have already been participating for three years.”

The competition, a collaboration between NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace, was created to develop student’s critical thinking and building skills. Rhoderick said the competition provides valuable exposure to the aerospace industry. 

“There’s so many ridiculously good student organizations and most of these are going to be very willing to take whoever, regardless of what your experience is or how many years you’ve been at USC, and that’s how you’re going to really get the experience,” Rhoderick said.