A group of eight Cal Poly mechanical engineering seniors are advancing to the semifinals for a NASA competition that asks students to create technology for the future of space exploration. 

NASA’s Moon to Mars Ice and Prospecting Challenge is asking students to create a system that is capable of being placed on Mars to extract water beneath layers of solid build-up. Each team presents its own functioning model to a panel of judges to demonstrate how it works.

The competition consists of 12 teams from universities across the nation. Universities in the semifinals include MIT, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University as well as Auburn University.   

Each team is challenged to build a prototype that is capable of breaking through various layers of debris and sediment to reach an ice shelf. The outcome of the prototype will be able to extract and store water from the ice for future space missions. Cal Poly’s team is planning to fill a five-gallon bucket by the end of their assembly, according to the team’s project manager Michelle Leclere. 

The team has been working since September of 2020, spending 10 to 12 hours per week working on the prototype.

They were able to examine and take apart the prototype that made it to the semifinals last year to collect technology for this year’s model. In order to view the robot within the Bonderson Project Center, a maximum of four students were allowed to be in the classroom at a time due to COVID-19 protocols. The students had to adapt to limited capacity and explain the robot to those outside the classroom that could not view it. 

“We can’t get everyone in there at the same time that has to see it,” Leclere said. “We have to relay information which is hard because sometimes we don’t know what they’re asking and we have to take pictures to try and explain it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be the main obstacle for Cal Poly’s team, according to group member Bradley Beherns. The team has been working for the past two months to create a proposal for their design and adjusting to teamwork over Zoom hasn’t been easy. 

The group has been able to collaborate five times in person. Those meetings are mostly held on campus in Bonderson Project Center, yet a majority of their decisions are being made over Zoom calls.   

“It’s really hard doing a group project over Zoom,” the team’s structure design lead Dominic Duran said. “It makes you appreciate how it used to be.”

Regardless of their obstacles, the team has taken a positive approach toward its goal with a name that states their shared attitudes. The prototype name “STYX and STONES” comes from the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Leclere said this year’s prototype name also serves as an homage to last year’s team, who named their machine “STYX”.

Last year’s team did not have the ability to physically compete due to the canceled competition, but they were able to build and test their system. 

“We are making a comeback, not only from their attempt to be in the competition last year, but also from all the struggles everyone has faced this year in 2020,” Leclere said. 

STYX and STONES is being updated and the team is still preparing in the hopes that the event will take place this year. The competition final is scheduled June 2-4.

Excitement for the team continues to build as they advance in the competition, Duran said.

“I feel like this kind of project contributes to a larger issue,” Duran said. “If global warming takes us and we have to go to Mars or something, this is contributing to a plan and I’m honored to be a part of that.”

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