Mission to Mars

    NASA refocuses on a plans for an unmanned mission to mars in 2018.

    August 27, 2010

    After taking office, U.S. President Barack Obama refocused NASA’s exploration plans on Mars and called for a 2018 unmanned rover mission to the red planet. “This,” says U of A engineering student Jessica Patzer, “could be the first step towards a U of A-designed core sampler going to Mars.”

    Patzer — along with fellow engineering students Stephen Dwyer, Jamie Yuen and Nicholas Olmedo — have designed a device that can drill core samples on Mars and store them for later analysis. Their design recently won the 10th Annual Capstone Awards for Excellence in Technical Design and then went on to win the Canadian Society of Mechanical Engineering Student Design Competition.

    For the Capstone Awards—a mechanical engineering student design competition — the team was required to complete their assigned design challenge within a four-month period. “We asked our instructors for a very tough design assignment, and we got it,” says Olmedo. “But winning the nationals in Victoria was our goal from the start,”

    U of A mechanical engineering professor and team advisor Michael Lipsett says he’s expecting that the Canadian Space Agency will soon announce a new call for proposals for a core drilling unit designed for Mars. “The prototype would be tested at a Mars analog site, a place like the high Arctic that approximates conditions on Mars,” says Lipsett. “American and Canadian companies that build robotic devices for the CSA and NASA will be looking for core-drilling technology and the U of A will be ready.”

    The engineering faculty design team knows that when a core-sampling unit eventually reaches Mars, the answer to the big question of whether life exists on another planet will be a high priority.

    “It would be the achievement of a lifetime,” says Olmedo, “if we could, in some way, contribute to determining whether there is life on another planet.”