Students design mock mission to Mars
Published: Monday, March 5, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 07:03
A team of West Virginia University engineering students is set to enter a national competition this summer with one goal in mind – the red planet fourth from the sun.
The team is developing a mock Mars mission as part of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration competition, the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts–Academic Linkage.
Teams of university students around the country were challenged to submit proposals to help NASA scientists overcome the challenges of space exploration, and the teams with the best proposals are invited to present in-depth projects in front of industry professionals.
A total of 24 teams applied, and WVU was one of 10 chosen to attend the RASC-AL Forum in June.
The team has to design the entire mission from scratch, from the design of the spaceship to the method of flight, and they will compile independent research, academic papers and technological innovations into their project, said Alan Didion, a mechanical engineering student and team member.
"The abstract is just basic ideas. Now we're collecting different ideas and doing the design from the ground up," Didion said. "One of the things we had to think about was our proposed mission date, which is in 2035."
Didion said even though the mission plan is fictional, the technology used must be real or in development.
"We made sure we picked technologies that even though they're not quite ready now, they'll be in use by the time the mission came around," he said. "We had a little bit of leeway on the technology, but they can't be super futuristic."
Sara Swanson, a chemical engineering student, said she is responsible for developing a plan for maintaining the physical and psychological health of astronauts on the mission.
The flight to Mars could take two years, she said, and passengers would have to grow their own food, exercise and have access to medical care.
"I got lucky, because a study just finished about the psychological effect of close-quarters living on astronauts," she said.
Swanson said the astronauts in the study were locked in a "bubble" simulating a Mars-bound spacecraft for two years, eating the same food and going through the same routines as a real mission, and were able to function normally during the entire study.
Jonathan Yancy, a chemical engineering student who serves as team leader of the group, said he used mathematical calculations to prove centrifugal force could create artificial gravity on the spacecraft.
He said even though the team is competing with others from prestigious schools, his team can bring fresh innovation to the competition.
"It's all about the ideas. If it's a good idea, it doesn't matter where it came from," he said.
Swanson said reaching out to University students is a good way to bring fresh perspectives to NASA and potentially create innovative ideas that could help the development of projects like a Mars mission.
"The more diversity you have, the more ideas you have, and we might think of something the professionals haven't," she said. "Sometimes people start to get stuck in a box, and the only way out is fresh ideas."
This is the first time a WVU team has applied to the competition. The team will travel to Coco Beach, Fla., in June to present its work to a panel of judges. The high-scoring teams will then be invited to present their project at a major aerospace conference.
Didion said winning the competition would pale in comparison to what could come from their research.
"If we design something that gets used by NASA, that would be amazing. It would be the ultimate reward," he said.