Exploring New Worlds: Penn Students Design an Ice Drilling Robot for Mars

Wanda Lipps, Gautam Nagaraj, and Michael Gromis, all students in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science who graduated this past spring, watched as a large drill, supported by a boxy metal frame, dug down into a container of dirt and ice.

The students, members of the Mars Water Horizons team at Penn, were testing an ice drilling robot they had built as part of a NASA student challenge to design a system that could recover water from the surface of Mars. Their robot is designed to drill through Martian soil, extract a core of ice and clay, and then melt and filter it into drinkable water.

Thomas Eng, Wes Thomas, and Taeho Lee, all seniors at the time the project was started, were also members of Mars Water Horizons, advised by David Goldsby, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Jennifer Lukes, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics.

“Penn has offered countless resources to make this all possible,” says Gromis, who double majored in mechanical engineering and economics at Wharton as part of the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology.

Penn equipped the team with mentors to guide them through the project. They also received financial support through Senior Design, as well as access to the machine shop, 3D printing, software, and large work spaces.

The challenge culminated in a trip to NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia where the team competed against seven other schools. It was inspired by the recent discovery of subsurface ice deposits on Mars.

“Being able to access these ice deposits,” says Thomas, a mechanical engineering major who will be returning to Penn for a masters in robotics, “would make missions to Mars much more feasible mainly because by accessing these ice deposits and getting the resulting water, you can not only drink that water, but you can also use it in a chemical reaction with the CO2 in the atmosphere to produce methane, which can be used as rocket fuel.”

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