Persistence, combined with a bit of a gambling spirit, carried West Virginia University’s robotic drilling team to another first place finish Thursday (June 6) in NASA’s Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge, the team’s second top finish in three years.
It wasn’t certain until the very end that WVU’s Mountaineer Ice Drilling Automated System III, led by Powsiri Klinkhachorn, was going to pull out the victory over teams from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stevens Institute of Technology, Virginia Tech or Northeastern University, the 2018 winner.
“Our students can compete with anyone and I believe that the dedication and passion of the student teams and advisors are the key ingredients to WVU's success," said Gene Cilento, dean of the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. “Looking back on this NASA prestigious and selective competition for the last six years, our team has won the first place three times, second place three times, and number of additional awards.”
Derek Roesch of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, Bertrand Wieliczko of Holderness, New Hampshire, Ian Hostottle of Williamstown, Nathan Owen of Fairfax, Virginia, and Karan (Kermit) Sah of Lexington, South Carolina, are the men behind MIDAS III.
WVU was a close second to MIT at the close of the first day of competition at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Klinkhachorn said WVU was one of three teams that extracted water from the test bed on the first day, with MIDAS III pumping 2,040 milliliters, the most of any team; however, MIT got an extra 103 milliliters in the hands-off operation.
After a drill bit stuck in hard layer of overburden and then came loose from the drilling apparatus, the team called off its all-in-one probe down to the ice layer with only three-and-a-half hours to hit water on the second day. Minor repairs and a part replacement left MIDAS III in good shape to finish the competition.
“We were able to get down to the ice layer within 50 minutes, so we just needed to melt the ice and recover the water,” Klinkhachorn said.
When a sensor didn’t register the presence of water, though, the team wasn’t sure if MIDAS III had been successful.
“We waited until the last 45 minutes of the competition and then started to pull the water out,” Klinkhachorn said. “With a bit of surprise, the water kept coming.”
In fact, it kept coming at a rate of 10 times more than the second-place team, Stevens Institute of Technology.
Just like drilling for water on Earth, the team didn’t know exactly what it would encounter when drilling through layers of soil and rock. One of the extremely hard overburden layers took its toll on MIDAS III, claiming four polycrystalline diamond compact drill bits.
MIDAS I came home with a first place in 2017 and MIDAS II a second place in 2018.
The team is sponsored by the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, the WVU Honors College, the West Virginia NASA Space Grant Consortium and ProtoLabs. Additional support came from Ilkin Bilgesu as the team’s co-advisor with his expertise in Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering and Jim Hall of the Chemical Engineering Machine Shop who allowed the team to use his machines and for parts fabrication.
According to NASA’s website, the competition helps inform its approaches for future human space exploration and prompts college students to investigate, plan and analyze space exploration and design at different states of development. The Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concept- Academic Linkage competitions fuel innovation for aerospace system concepts, analogs and technology prototyping, the site says.