Mission to Mars Moon: Student Team Wins Phobos Spaceflight Challenge

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took this image of the larger of Mars' two moons, Phobos, from a distance of about 6,800 kilometers (about 4,200 miles). (Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

PASADENA, Calif. — A team of students has come up with an ambitious plan to send astronauts to a Martian moon, winning a Caltech space exploration contest in the process.

Team Voyager won the Caltech Space Challenge Friday (March 29), edging out Team Explorer in a hard-fought contest. Both 16-person teams devised manned missions to the tiny Mars moon Phobos, contributing ideas to help humanity push farther out into the solar system than it's ever gone before.

"Both teams performed exceptionally well," said Jakob van Zyl, a senior executive at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and a Space Challenge judge. "Their enthusiasm was a pleasure to observe."

Caltech Space Challenge

A total of 32 graduate and undergraduate students representing 21 universities and 11 different countries participated in the 2013 Caltech Space Challenge, which ran from March 25 through March 29 at the university's campus in Pasadena. [The Boldest Mars Missions in History]

Scientists and engineers from Caltech, JPL and a number of aerospace firms advised the two student teams and judged their final mission plans.

Some big names in the history of space exploration also helped inspire the students. For example, Buzz Aldrin — the second person to set foot on the moon —  gave a lecture on the complexities of traveling from Earth to Mars and back via the Red Planet's two minuscule moons, Phobosand Deimos.

"These young people are driven by a sense of exploration, and these missions have been designed using the right place… Phobos,” said Aldrin, as he watched the exploration plans take shape. He was also impressed by their choice of using primarily commercial launch systems, such as SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.

"The number one requirement for space right now is to recover the investment we have already made," Aldrin said.

Flying to a Martian moon

Teams Explorer and Voyager were instructed to figure out a way to send three or four astronauts to a Martian moon, departing in 2032. Once there, the explorers would conduct up to eight extravehicular forays and then return to Earth with geological samples. [Giant Leaps: Top Milestones of Human Spaceflight]

The two teams worked in isolation from each other and with little sleep or exposure to sunshine.

“The last few days were really exhausting,” said participant Andrew Dahir, who hails from Australia. “But our spirits were high the whole time, and we came together as a team to explore the engineering aspects of this mission and to really focus on the details."

Each team carefully considered the same problems that NASA and other space agencies have been working on for decades. These include moving large masses of equipment and fuel into Earth orbit; providing life support and consumables for astronauts during the long voyage to Mars; the prevention of muscle and bone degradation from extended weightlessness; and protection from long-duration radiation exposure.

This last factor was perhaps the most difficult to solve, but Stephanie Gonzales of the University of Colorado at Boulder volunteered to tackle the problem for Team Explorer.

“We considered some innovative ideas about radiation protection, including algae mats grown in between the ship’s hulls," Gonzales said. Algae mats are "lightweight, can decompose wastes and even provide a food supply."

An additional benefit of such a system, Gonzales added, is that non-metal shields do not cause dangerous secondary particle emissions when they encounter radiation.


Victory for Voyager

The algae mat idea was one of several innovative solutions the teams came up with.

For example, Team Explorer made a detailed study of in-flight surgeries and medical procedures, 3D printing of replacement parts during the mission and the use of a short-radius centrifuge to minimize muscle atrophy and loss of bone density.

Team Voyager designed a robotic arm (similar to the space shuttle’s Canadarm) to keep astronauts from drifting away from Phobos during spacewalks and to deal with the deep dust and loose material that might be found on the surface. The students also specified the extensive use of existing International Space Station hardware designs across the mission to minimize cost.

Both teams provided robust research programs for the approximately three-week stay at Phobos, and each designed a new spacecraft — a Phobos exploration vehicle — to transport astronauts to the moon and provide a working habitat.

In the end, Team Voyager won out. Its mission design uses 11 SpaceX launches to assemble and fuel the Mars spacecraft in low-Earth orbit, the bulk of which would deliver the cryogenic hydrogen needed for the nuclear propulsion unit powering the Earth-Mars crossing.

Voyager's mission modules include a deep-space habitat, NASA’s Orion capsule for Earth return and the Phobos exploration vehicle, which resembles a small SUV with grappling arms to hold onto the 14-mile-wide (22 kilometers) moon.

After a few weeks exploring Phobos, the exploration vehicle would remain behind for continuing remote operations, while the rest of the spacecraft made the long journey home. The round-trip mission is estimated to take about 450 days.

For their efforts, Team Voyager members received first-place certificates as well as additional cash stipends. But the real prize for both teams was the opportunity to participate in a high-end engineering exercise overseen by top-level space professionals, and to make a contribution to future space exploration efforts.

“The people who return us to space will be remembered even more than we [space] pioneers,” Aldrin said, “when they make a commitment to stay there.”

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Rod Pyle
Space.com Contributor

Rod Pyle is an author, journalist, television producer and editor in chief of Ad Astra magazine for the National Space Society. He has written 18 books on space history, exploration and development, including "Space 2.0," "First on the Moon" and "Innovation the NASA Way." He has written for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, WIRED, Popular Science, Space.com, Live Science, the World Economic Forum and the Library of Congress. Rod co-authored the "Apollo Leadership Experience" for NASA's Johnson Space Center and has produced, directed and written for The History Channel, Discovery Networks and Disney.