Engineering physics students finalists in NASA Mars competition

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Look out, little green men: A group of UW-Madison engineering physics undergraduate students is helping NASA gear up for more frequent forays to your planet.

Recently NASA and the Florida and Texas space grant consortia selected the UW-Madison students as one of six finalist teams in the NASA MarsPort Engineering Design Student Competition 2001.

NASA competition students

Engineering physics undergraduate students Robert Slowinski, Anders Brown and Jason Cree (back row from left), and Stephanie Diem and Chris Orsina (front row from left) are finalists in a NASA competition in which they will analyze and optimize the design of a Mars cryogenics and consumables station. (16K JPG)

For the competition, student groups conduct engineering trade studies (analyze existing hardware) of a MarsPort cryogenics and consumables station (MCCS) and optimize its design and compatibility with Mars ascent vehicles, says John Pfotenhauer, associate professor of engineering physics and mechanical engineering and the team’s advisor.

Because it can combine its supply of liquid hydrogen with carbon dioxide and other Mars gasses to make and store water for the crew and methane and oxygen for fuel, the MCCS is a key component of an affordable mission to Mars. The MCCS is part of an in situ resource utilization, or IRSU, plant that NASA will establish and operate on Mars’ surface well before human explorers arrive.

One of the main reasons scientists want to explore Mars is to learn about its history, says UW-Madison team leader Chris Orsina. “There has been evidence that Mars has at some point had liquid water on its surface, and that has led to speculation that life may have existed on Mars–and bacteria may still exist there,” he says.

The first U.S. robotic spacecraft flew past Mars in the 1960s and sent back images of barren, unfriendly terrain; 1975 marked the end of the Viking mission, which included experiments that tested for signs of life. Failing that, scientists focused on the planet’s geology and climate.

A number of factors have prevented human exploration of Mars, says Orsina. “Probably the most significant of these is the risk involved in such a long-duration mission,” he says. “The travel time to Mars using currently available technology ranges around 100 to 150 days.”

To satisfy the competition’s initial requirements, the UW-Madison team wrote a 40-plus-page proposal, which included an MCCS conceptual design review report, an outreach plan and a description of academic resources available to them for the project.

For their final design, the group will consider a number of factors, including Mars’ terrain and environmental conditions, says Orsina. “Much of Mars is like the American Southwest on a much larger scale,” he says. “The daytime temperature gets near 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but it isn’t insulated by its atmosphere the way Earth is, so nighttime temperatures plunge below freezing.” The proposed landing site is in a dust-swept area near canyons 10 times the size of the Grand Canyon and fives times as deep, he says.

In addition to two major design reports, each team will submit biweekly progress reports and develop a website ( as part of its outreach efforts. NASA will incorporate student innovations into its engineering trade studies and evaluate them against other leading concepts. The competition will culminate at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, in May at the NASA MarsPort Design Conference, at which members of each student group will present their final designs.

Other finalists include teams from Cornell University, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and the George Washington University-Joint Institute for Advancement of Flight Sciences Team.