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As America recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, scientists and engineering students continue to set their sights on exploring our universe even further. Landing on the Moon is a historic achievement but many feel that the milestone belongs to a previous generation. Now, NASA and universities from across the country are focusing on the next challenge: supporting a continued human presence on the Moon and ultimately Mars.

These drill components are part of West Virginia University's MIDAS III, an autonomous ice drilling robot that captured first place in a national, university-level competition related to NASA's Moon to Mars mission.

A clean and continuous water supply is vital for any human settlement to thrive on the Moon or Mars. In 2017, NASA launched Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage Special Edition Challenge (RASC-AL): Mars Ice Challenge, a competition for college students to develop innovative ways to design, build, and test systems that can extract water from Martian ice. The 2019 competition, RASC-AL: Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge, expanded the program to also include extracting water from the subsurface of the Moon.

Protolabs sponsored three of the final 10 university teams involved in the competition with in-kind digital manufacturing service grants that mainly included CNC machining. Those teams were West Virginia University, Stevens Institute of Technology (New Jersey), and Colorado School of Mines. West Virginia's team captured first place overall while also being awarded the distinction of Most Water Collected during the competition. Stevens Institute of Technology took second place overall and was awarded the Cleanest Water Collected and Best Digital Core in the team's first year taking part in the competition.

These plates are part of Stevens Institute of Technology's DEIMOS, which took second place in the NASA competition.

Protolabs’ sponsorship and assistance in providing the teams with the parts and materials they requested for their projects played a crucial role in the teams’ overall success. The students were able to focus on the uncommon design and engineering challenges of the competition while receiving the quality machined parts they needed in a timely manner and in the exact specifications required.

Design iteration was critical to the success of the student projects. The teams’ overall plans evolved depending on what materials worked best within their designs, with applications engineers at Protolabs providing design recommendations and manufacturing processes that matched what the teams needed.

West Virginia's MIDAS (Mountaineer Ice Drilling Automated System) III is an autonomous ice drilling robot that uses a probe to penetrate the surface or ice to collect usable water through forming a Rod-well (short for Rodriguez well), which creates a cavity deep below the surface or ice. And the size of the pipe presented a distinct challenge to both the team and Protolabs.

West Virginia University's MIDAS ice drilling robot in action.

“Our main pipe had to be split into two pieces to accommodate the maximum size limit of Protolabs’ CNC machines,” said Kermit Sah, mechanical co-lead/management lead on West Virginia's project. “We had to develop a connecting mechanism to combine two separate pipes; we had to make sure most of the designs would not hinder our abilities.”

For Stevens Institute of Technology, this was the first time the university took part in the competition. As a result, team members did not have the educational experiences of previous projects to draw on, which led to some parts ultimately not being used in the final design after some trial and error. Stevens’ DEIMOS (Drill-based Extraction of Ice-water and Martian Overburden System) design abandoned a sheet metal tank meant to heat the water in a separate container as well as a sleeve system meant to filter out the overburden due to weight and size restrictions. But Stevens’ final design project was innovative enough to succeed even after minor design setbacks.

While the students at all of the universities were troubleshooting and streamlining their designs, Protolabs was able to meet the specific demands of their projects, while providing assistance with any student questions or concerns.

The West Virginia University team displayed its MIDAS ice drilling robot, designed to penetrate the surface or ice of Mars to collect usable water. Members of Team MIDAS II include (from left) Nathan Owen, Derek Roesch, Bert Wieliczko, Kermit Sah and Powsiri Klinkhachorn.

“Protolabs’ automated design analysis helped streamline different designs,” said West Virginia's Sah. “All contacts from Protolabs were very helpful in answering any questions we had in troubleshooting our issues.”

MIDAS III's All-In-One-Probe was a focal point of West Virginia's system, and the two lower main pipes, two upper main pipes, and two copper heater housings were integral to the project's overall success. “The build quality on each of our products was exceptional,” said Sah. “And the parts came in on time. Without the help of Protolabs, we would not have been able to fabricate a high-quality probe. The probe worked phenomenally during competition and did not break. By using only one probe we were able to curb the issue of overburden collapse.”

Stevens Institute of Technology used machined aluminum 6061 drill mount parts as well as copper piping for the extractor tip for their DEIMOS drill-based extractor system. “All of the parts were received within one to two days of the expected delivery,” said Ann Collins of the Stevens team. “Protolabs was a large help to the DEIMOS team by allowing the students to outsource some of the machining work in order to work in parallel on other deliverables. The customer service made communicating with Protolabs personal and efficient.

“The copper tips and the drill mount were crucial in the success of our robot during competition,” said Collins. “The mount holding the drill allowed the team to better control the motion of the bit and guide both the drill and 32” bit along the guide rail and into the overburden. The copper tip then assisted the team in melting the ice in a timely fashion, allowing DEIMOS to be one of three teams to collect water on the first day.”

The engineering work put in by the students at the three universities could help humanity one day achieve a sustained presence on the Moon and Mars. “Space exploration requires cooperation,” said Stacy Dees, RASC-AL Program Manager at the National Institute of Aerospace. “NASA obviously has a vested interest in advancing technologies used to harvest water on the Moon and Mars. Protolabs also recognizes the importance of what this challenge is accomplishing, and we were thrilled when they asked to be a part of it. It was an unexpected and unique sponsorship with a win-win outcome. The competitive service grants for rapid parts manufacturing was invaluable to the three teams who benefited from them, enabling them to compete at top performance levels and provide NASA with high-fidelity prototypes. Protolabs was able to demonstrate their mission of solving specialized product development challenges at record speeds.”

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