Mars Ice Challenge Details

Please use the navigation bar to the right for the RASC-AL Special Edition: Mars Ice Challenge.

The navigation bar at the top of the page will take you away from the Mars Ice Challenge site to the webpage for the RASC-AL Deep Space Subsystem Concepts competition

NASA is embracing new paradigms in exploration that involve expanding our knowledge and leveraging resources as we extend our presence into the solar system. Space pioneering and prospecting towards Earth independence are necessary steps to achieving NASA’s goal of extending humanity’s reach into space.

Recent discoveries of what are thought to be large ice deposits just under the surface on Mars have Mars mission planners re-thinking how a sustained human presence on Mars could be enabled by a “water rich” environment. Water is essential to enabling a sustained presence, as it could enable agriculture, propellant production, reduce recycling needs for oxygen and provide abundant hydrogen for the development of plastics and other in-situ manufacturing driven materials. Before the water can be used to support sustained human presence, it must be extracted from the Mars ice deposits. Once extracted, water must be isolated to prevent evaporation (or sublimation if still ice) from the low atmospheric pressures and temperatures found on Mars. The purpose of this challenge is to explore and demonstrate methods to extract water from the Mars ice deposits.

Participating team members take on the role of astronauts on Mars who monitor and control drilling operations. Using a combination of autonomous operation and remote control, teams will operate their drills to extract as much water as possible. In order to demonstrate a wide range of drilling capabilities of interest to exploration and science, team member interaction with the drill will be divided into a period where “hands-on” operation and repairs are permitted and a period where physical “hands-on” crew interaction with the drill will be restricted. During all phases of the competition, the teams will be able to use a control system to “remotely” operate the drill system.


Through the RASC-AL Special Edition: Mars Ice Challenge, NASA will provide university-level engineering students with the opportunity to design and build hardware that can extract water from simulated Martian subsurface ice. Multiple teams will be chosen through a proposal and down-select process that assesses the teams’ concepts and progress throughout the year.

Up to 8 teams will become finalists and travel to the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA during the summer of 2017 to participate in a multi-day competition where the universities’ drilling hardware and software will compete to extract the most water from simulated Martian subsurface ice over a two-day period. Each Martian simulated subsurface ice station will be comprised of layers, including dirt/overburden and solid blocks of ice. The total simulated subsurface ice depth will not exceed 1.0 meter. Teams may drill multiple holes. The drilling and water extraction system is subject to mass, volume, and power constraints.

In addition to the test and validation portion of the project, teams will present their drilling concepts in a technical poster session to a multi-disciplinary judging panel of scientists and engineers from NASA and industry. Poster presentations will be based on the team’s technical paper that details the drill concept’s “path-to-flight” (how the design can be applied to an actual mission on Mars). Noting the significant differences between Mars and Earth operational environments, the mandatory path-to-flight discussion should describe essential modifications that would be required for Mars water extraction. This includes, but is not limited to, considerations for temperature differences, power limitations, and atmospheric pressure differences (i.e., challenges from sublimation).

Based on initial proposals, up to 8 qualifying university teams will be selected to receive a $10,000 stipend to facilitate full participation in the competition, including expenses for hardware development, materials, testing equipment, hardware, software and travel to Langley for the competition. Scoring will be based on the ability to drill through each layer of the simulated subsurface ice, total water extracted and collected each day, adherence to NASA requirements, a technical paper capturing innovations and design, and a technical poster presentation.

Top performing teams may be chosen to present their design at a NASA-chosen event. Subject to the availability of funds, such invites may include an accompanying stipend to further advance development of team concepts and offset the cost of traveling to the event.

Designing the Prototype for Mars or Earth?

The FY17 Mars Ice Challenge is focused on ways to extract ice and get it into a container. Whatever designs teams come up with to accomplish that goal, the technology should be designed as if it would be feasible for use on Mars, and then modify it for the Earth-based technology demonstration at Langley next summer. Project plans should discuss the modification/trades that were made between the earth-based design and how that design would be modified for use on Mars.

Even though the competition will take place here on Earth, please do not propose a concept with a blow-dryer and a shop vacuum – that won’t get teams very far in this competition. Preference will be given to those teams that propose water extraction ideas that have merit for use on Mars. Your emphasis should be on Marian design, but then modify it to show us how it will work here on Earth.

Competition Tasks

Your drilling system must be able to:

  1. Drill through a top layer of overburden (comprised of pitcher mound clay, mixed with 10% by mass ~1” angular gravel)
    • The overburden depth will be between 0.3 m and 0.4 m.
  2. Drill into ice
  3. Extract as much liquid water as possible and deposit into an external accumulation tank
    • The external accumulation tank will be a 22 qt. bucket and lid, located within 1 meter adjacent to the team’s test station.
      • As water nears the top of the bucket, it will be measured and poured out to allow for additional water collection.
    • Teams have the freedom to design creative solutions to melt the extracted ice.
    • Teams will need to transfer as much liquid water as possible into the provided tank.
    • Teams will need to design and bring water transfer equipment.
      • A standard garden hose will be able to connect to the external accumulation tank.
        • Teams are encouraged to bring at least 3 meters of hose.
      • Teams will need to deliver a finished product (i.e., liquid water filtered from as much debris as possible) into the provided tank.
        • Designs should include a solution (i.e., filter) to collect any sediment, so that only water is delivered into the tank for measurement.
        • NASA will provide a secondary control filtration system at the accumulation tank to capture any additional debris.
          • Any sediment captured in the secondary filtration system will be collected and measured. There will be a score penalty associated with sediment collected, based on a ratio of water/debris collection.
Simulated Martian Subsurface Ice Test Station

Bonar CoolerDuring the on-site portion of the competition, each team will be provided with their own work station, which will include workbench style tables, chairs, wastebasket, and a test station with the simulated Martian subsurface ice. A lid/mounting platform with open access to the simulated Martian subsurface ice will be located directly on top of the subsurface ice; this platform will be a staging area for the drilling system.

The simulated Martian subsurface ice (aka, test station) is contained within a large ice chest/cooler (Bonar ice chest, model PB2145), consisting of:

  • a layer of dry ice on the bottom, followed by:
  • a layer of blocked ice
    • ice block dimension = 1 m x .5 m x .5 m (L x W x D), followed by
  • a layer of overburden consisting of pitcher mound clay mixed with 10% by mass of ~1” angular gravel;
    • overburden layer depth will be between 0.3 m and 0.4 m
    • the overburden will not exceed past the natural height of the ice chest
  • a lid that sits directly on top of the overburden, which also serves as the drill mounting platform;
    • the lid/mounting platform will have a hole cut out that is equal to the size of the ice blocks beneath it (i.e., the opening will not exceed 1 m x .5 m). This hole will expose the entire viable drilling area, and only the viable drilling area, so that teams may drill multiple holes as desired without concern for drilling into dry ice and foam insulation
    • each team’s drill will sit directly on this mounting platform
    • several anchoring points (3" carriage bolts) will be available at the corners of the platforms, 36.5 inches apart -- as well as 2'x4' wooden boards for mounting (see diagram below)
      • teams will design solutions that propose the best way to anchor the drill to this lid/mounting platform
      • Top View of Lid.

Side View Test Station

Competition Environment & Thermal Management

The competition will be held indoors, in a climate controlled room.
Dealing with ice at atmospheric conditions is non-trivial. Teams are encouraged carefully consider thermal management in the design and operation procedures. During this indoor competition, teams can expect the simulated Martian subsurface ice will have non-uniform temperature. Teams should assume that the atmospheric temperature is going to be ~ 20 °C, the overburden will have a gradient from 20 C to the ice interface at -10° C.

Daily Operations

Each team will have two separate attempts (6 hours on Day One and 6 hours on Day Two) to drill and extract water from the simulated Martian subsurface ice.

  1. Set Up Day:
    • Prior to the first official competition day, teams will have an afternoon to set up their drilling system, undergo inspection (safety, volume check, weigh-in, etc.), and conduct mechanical, electrical, and communications testing. No actual drilling will be allowed on the set up day.
  2. Testing Day One:
    • On the first day, teams will receive unlimited human interventions, if needed.
      • Standing water in the cooler will be drained overnight.
  3. Testing Day Two:
    • On the second day, teams will be allotted with 30 minutes for human interventions at the start of the day, and then must be “hands-off” for the remainder of the day (i.e., the drills must operate autonomously or via “remote crew-controlled” operations for the last 5.5 hours of the 2nd competition day).

Collected water will be measured each day, and the water collected on Day Two will be weighted by a multiplier of 3.

Design Constraints & Requirements
  1. The drilling system must operate autonomously or via “remote crew-controlled” operations for the duration of the run. Either system operation is acceptable, as either would/could be used on Mars.
    • Definitions
      • Autonomous control is “hands-off”: once the system starts, no further operation from any crew is required.
      • Remote crew-controlled allows for the use of a computer distinct from the drilling system that talks to the drill (if desired, connected by a cable or Bluetooth, point-to-point, etc. to the drilling system) to operate the drilling system (e.g. to control the speed of the drill).
    • Once the drilling system has been set up, teams will need to step back and allow their system to operate independently. If the system needs to be repaired after initial operation begins, judges will allow human intervention (i.e., mulligans) in accordance with the daily operations described above. Example of allowable intervention is replacement of stuck drill bits.
    • “Remote crew-controlled” operations indicate that the crew will be nearby their test station (within line of site) and can figure out when problems occur and can address those problems remotely. Drills should not be built that will require human intervention, instead, they should be built to work on their own while being controlled remotely.
      • Teams are encouraged to utilize a corded or tethered system that serves as the digital link between humans and machine.
      • There will be no local WiFi access available to the teams for this competition. Teams may implement a direct, localized wireless connection between their drill and computer/control system, but must accept the risk of possible interference.
      • While the drill is limited to 10 amps, a separate power supply will be available for the computer/control system.
  2. The drilling system (and everything used on the system during the competition) must be no larger than 1m x 1m x 2m tall.
    • System volume limits represent launch vehicle packaging limits.
    • Volume limits extend to all portions of the competition (i.e., the size of the drilling system can never exceed the established volume limits), with the exception of the water transfer equipment that connects to the accumulation tank and the remote-control chords and computers used beside the test station.
    • Systems exceeding these dimension limits will result in disqualification and development stipends subject to refund to NIA
  3. The drilling system (and everything used on the system, including the water transfer equipment) must have a mass less than or equal to 50 kg.
    • Clarification: Anything that sits on top of the lid as part of your drill system must meet the mass, power, and volume constraints. Anything that is intrinsically part of the drill system (the drill components, heating elements, command & control computers, power cables, filtration system, pumps, hose, anchoring system, etc.) – all of this counts against mass and power limit.
      • The interface used in remote crew-controlled operations (i.e., any cables used for tethering to the system for communication, or computers used to communicate with the drill) are not included in your overall system mass or power limitations.
    • Teams with a system exceeding the mass limit will be disqualified and development stipends subject to refund to NIA.
  4. The drilling system must be capable of operating on limited power supply - not more than 10 amps on 120 VAC
    • Teams will be provided with a wall plug fitted with a circuit breaker to limit power draw.
      • Augmenting the drill’s power supply via batteries, solar power, etc. is not allowed.
    • This power limitation only applies to the drilling system itself. Separate power sources (i.e., a standard wall outlet) will be supplied for the remote crew-controlled computer/control devices for the drill.
  5. The drill force (also called Weight on Bit) should be limited to less than 100 N.
    • Teams are required to provide a data logger to monitor and record their load limits throughout the competition.
  6. The length of drill bits is limited to 38.5 inches to avoid drilling through the bottom of the cooler.
  7. The drilling system should be able to drill through:
    • Up to 0.5 meters of overburden (pitcher’s mound clay mixed with 10% by mass ~1” angular gravel)
    • Up to 0.5 meters of ice
  8. The drilling system must be capable of handling temperatures as low as -26° Celsius.
  9. Each team’s drilling system should include solutions to:
    • Deal with the overburden, minimizing the amount of dirt in the water collected
      • Solutions should not involve options to “blow” the overburden away from the test station.
      • ii. Teams may move/deposit overburden anywhere on the lid/mounting platform, but overburden should only be deposited onto the floor outside the container within the limits of the tarp under each station (which extends approximately 4 feet on all sides of each test station).
    • Manage the temperature changes to prevent the drill from freezing in the ice, and/or how to deal with this situation should it occur.
    • Melt the ice so that it can be delivered to the external tank, where total water volume can be collected.
    • Filter debris from the ice/water.

The RASC-AL Special Edition: Mars Ice Challenge is open to full-time undergraduate and graduate students majoring in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics and related disciplines at an accredited U.S.-based university. Teams may include senior capstone courses, robotics clubs, multi-university teams, multi-disciplinary teams, etc. Undergraduate and graduate students may work in collaboration together on the same team.

  • Team sizes vary widely, but must contain, at a minimum, one faculty or industry advisor with a university affiliation at a U.S.-based institution, and 2 students from a U.S.-based university. There is no limit to the number of participants on each team, however, a maximum of 4 students and 1 faculty advisor may attend the onsite portion of the Mars Ice Challenge held at NASA Langley Research Center.
  • One faculty advisor is required to attend the onsite portion of the competition with each team, and is a condition for acceptance into the Mars Ice Challenge.
    • Teams who do not have a faculty advisor present at the Mars Ice Challenge Competition will be disqualified from competing and stipends will be subject to return to NIA.

Foreign universities are not eligible to participate in the Mars Ice Challenge. However, foreign students who are attending a U.S.-based university are eligible to participate with their team. Please note there is always the possibility that foreign nationals may not be granted access to attend the on-site competition at NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC), due to ever-changing NASA security regulations.

Teams selected to participate in the on-site competition will be responsible for the following Project Deliverables:
  1. Mid-Project Status Review
    • Submit a 3-5 page mid-project status review paper demonstrating drilling system’s ability
    • Submit a short video demonstration of the drilling system’s ability
  2. Technical Report - due two weeks prior to the actual competition at NASA
    • A 10-15 page technical paper to be judged by Steering Committee, detailing the drill concept’s path-to-flight (how the design can be applied to actual Martian drilling).
  3. Technical Poster Presentation
    • To be presented during the Mars Ice Challenge
  4. Fully functioning drilling system that meets the Design Requirements

Additional details on each of these deliverables will be provided to the eight finalist teams.


Top performing teams may be chosen to present their design at a NASA-chosen event. Subject to the availability of funds, such invites may include an accompanying stipend to further advance development of team concepts and offset the cost of traveling to the event.