POTSDAM -- A joint team of Clarkson University and Uruguayan students placed third in a recent competition sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The team was one of 18 attending the 2011 Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts - Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) forum this spring in Cocoa Beach, Fla. The teams presented their concepts to a panel of NASA and industry leaders.
Clarkson University Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering Pier Marzocca, team co-advisor, said that the competition is designed to give NASA fresh ideas and to spark the imagination and creativity of college students.
"These are conceptual designs," said Marzocca, "futuristic concepts -- the first stage where the most important characteristics of a space architecture systems are defined, which may lead to transformative 'revolutionary' technologies that NASA could use in future space exploration."
"They are looking for thinking out of the box," he said. "NASA people have been used to always doing things in a certain way - have flown the Space Shuttle for almost 30 years - and having innovative ideas coming from college students can let them thinking differently - that's what this program is all about."
The students, in turn, learn about NASA and space exploration while they design "potentially new technologies that will open up interplanetary space travels."
This year, Clarkson students teamed up with students from Uruguay, which added a layer of complexity to the process. Most of the collaboration was done through conference calls and e-mails. Everything worked out and both parts of the team were able to attend the forum. "They did a great job," said Marzocca. "I'm very pleased with the collaboration that we initiated with the group from Uruguay. They're exceptionally good and talented students."
The team developed a plan for a safe and relatively cost-effective way to launch a manned mission to Mars, including establishing settlements both on Mars and in space. The students called their proposal "Yvy pita," which is pronounced "eevee petah" and means "red world" in Guaraní, one of Uruguay's native languages.
Central to the approach is to build a spacecraft that would travel from Earth to Mars and back without landing on either planet. A separate craft would shuttle passengers and cargo from Earth orbit, perhaps from the International Space Station, to the first ship. Those two ships would travel to Mars together, along with a third vessel that would make the actual Mars landing. All three ships would be reusable, helping to make the system cost effective.
"Instead of having just one space ship that will take off and land and has to do all phases at once," said Marzocca, "the design called for one-of-a-kind ships for specific purposes that will be combined to perform the complete mission."
Another key part of the plan is to use in-situ resources both in space and on Mars. The students designed a system for the main spaceship to capture an asteroid and mine it for its resources. These resources could be used to expand the original vessel into a space community that travels between the two planets.
The plan also calls for rocks and minerals on Mars to be used to make interlocking bricks that would form the first human settlement there.
Fuel would also be produced from these resources; otherwise it would be unfeasible to plan a two-way mission.
Using these resources, Marzocca said, "is probably the only way you can make a sustainable and economically viable system, ecosystem even, where you can make the most from what is out there and reuse it in a way to create an environment for people to live in space for an extended period of time." This way, he said, "you can have a colony, even a civilization growing in space, with hotels, resorts, and many more businesses activities."
Marzocca said the team nearly won. "The judges really liked it," he said. "It was almost like a popular vote," but after the projects went through the scoring system, the team captured third.
"It went very well," said Marzocca, "because each one leveraged his own expertise. The project was broken down in several tasks and each student addressed his part and then all the pieces of the puzzle were put together. The Clarkson students were primarily in charge of the system engineering analysis and implementation aspects while the team members from Uruguay were in charge of the architectural design, timeline, and business aspects."
Marzocca said Clarkson has been sending teams to RASC-AL for the past few years. "Usually students come up with out-of-the-box ideas, which are very novel and creative," he added.
The Clarkson team members included Anas Achouri, an exchange student from Morocco; Julian A. Corpus '13, an aeronautical engineering major from Carthage, N.Y.; Jonathan L. Hladchuk '12, aeronautical engineering, Howes Cave, N.Y.; Benjamin D. Hunold '11, mechanical engineering and aeronautical engineering, Phoenix, N.Y.; Steve O. K. Mbazo '11, mechanical engineering and aeronautical engineering, Yaounde, Cameroon; Giulio A. Soliani '12, mechanical engineering, Genova, Italy; Casey M. Stockbridge '11, mechanical engineering and aeronautical engineering, Oneida, N.Y.; and Megan L. Williams '11, aeronautical engineering, Binghamton, N.Y.
The Uruguay team members from Universidad ORT and Universidad De La República in Montevideo included Victoria Alonsoperez, Nicolás Bosolasco, Mathias Cenas, Maximilano Pereira.
Marzocca and Giorgio Gaviraghi, president of the architectural firm Exponential Design Lab in Uruguay, served as team advisors.
At the top of the page is a rendering of the Clarkson University team's design, the Mars Cruiser spacecraft.