CMU team finalist for NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge to drill for water on Mars |
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Aaron Aupperlee
The planet Mars is seen in an image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope taken August 27, 2003. Scientists have found the first evidence that briny water may flow on the surface of Mars during the planet's summer months, a paper published on Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, showed.

When humans land on Mars with the intent to stay, they’ll need something to drink.

So a team of students at Carnegie Mellon University is working on a way to drill ice out of the Martian soil, melt it and purify it for drinking water.

The Tartan Ice Drilling System was one of 10 finalists selected to compete in NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge. The team has until June to design a drilling system that can access water frozen under the surface of Mars.

“The hardest thing we’re going to have to accommodate for is sublimation,” said Caroline Morin, the project lead on the CMU team. “We have to design a system so that there is minimal exposure of the ice to the air.”

Turns out the hardest thing about drilling for ice on Mars isn’t actually getting the ice but keeping it ice once you have it. The high temperatures and low atmospheric pressures on Mars create conditions where ice won’t melt into water but instead turn directly into a vapor. The CMU team must develop a drill, melting device and water filter within a closed system, exposing it to the outside as little as possible, Morin said.

Two teams from West Virginia University are also finalists in the competition.

Scientists suspect Mars has vast stores of water frozen under its surface, said Melvin Ferebee, a director at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

“It is absolutely crucial that we figure out a way to effectively and efficiently access that water,” Ferebee said. “And the Mars Ice Challenge provides us with a variety of potential options to start solving that problem.”

The CMU team is going to use a core drill to collect the ice, move the ice to a melting station and then put the water through a filtering process, Morin said.

A drawing of the Tartan Ice Drilling System could look like. (Photo from Caroline Morin)

Corin is majoring in chemical and biomedical engineering and hopes to help out on the filtering process. The team of seven has students with backgrounds in mechanical and electrical engineering and robotics.

“It was 100 percent new to all of us,” Corin said of working on a space project.

Corin hopes to grow the team early next year. It is open to undergraduate and graduate students. The competition gave the team a $5,000 stipend, but the team is looking to raise more money from CMU and corporate sponsorships.

Teams have six months to build their systems. In June, the teams will go to Langley to test their prototypes. Corin said prizes will be awarded based on the amount of water extracted and its purity and the quality of the technical paper.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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