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Space Mining


MIDAS Three photograph

Written by Pam Pritt

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The most urgent problem we have is one that follows us around when we wake up, when we’re on the job and when we’re at the gym.We need water to survive. And that will be true on Mars, too.

“Ice is apparently already on the surface [of Mars] at the pole and when they land the probes there, they observed there’s ice deposits on their landing pad,” said West Virginia University engineering Professor Powsiri Klinkhachorn. “There’s some ice just slightly below the surface in certain areas. So there’s supposed to be plenty of water on Mars — technically.”

Teams of students led by Klinkhachorn have been on the leading edge of a competition that NASA is using to mine for ideas on how to most efficiently access the water stored as ice beneath the surface of Mars.

Since the competition began in 2017, students from the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources have won first and second place in NASA’s Moon to Mars Ice and Prospecting Challenge and have been accepted into this year’s event set for June 3-7 at the NASALangley Research Center.

The teams are asked to design a drilling rig that will bore through layers of sediment above the ice, identify and organize the layers using the drill’s telemetry, melt the ice and pump out as much water — with as little soil mixed in — as possible.

The first WVU rig, MIDAS I, got first place. MIDAS II got second place along with the title of retrieving the clearest water. Now MIDAS III is getting readied for the next competition. It’s going to be more complex with different soil layers in unpredictable combinations.

Team Photo

In 2018, a WVU team won second place in NASA’s ice drilling competition. Some of the team members are pictured here from left: Derek Roesch, Kermit Sah, Powsiri Klinkhachorn, Bert Wieliczko and Nathan Owen.

The team of students will not only need to extract water, but also assess subsurface density profiles. Instead of the red clay and 10-percent gravel mix layers of the previous competitions, the team can expect to encounter dry sand; a clay, sand and gravel mix; a clay and sand mix; clay and rocks; solid/consolidated rock or stone; aerated concrete and crushed cinderblock.

“The hardest layers will have an unconfined compressive strength as hard as concrete,” Klinkhachorn said.

We don’t know what the sediment layers look like under the surface of Mars, but finding water for drinking or other purposes comes with a known issue — lack of atmospheric pressure — causing the melted ice not to exit the bored hole as liquid, but as vapor.

Klinkhachorn said drilling on Mars would require building pressure to capture the vapor and return it to liquid, which may require building a structure large enough for the drill and the humans to operate it.

Another way to use ice on Mars is as a barrier to radiation. The planet lacks a magnetosphere and atmosphere, so it is exposed to much higher levels of radiation than Earth. The rover Curiosity found that on the 180-day journey to Mars alone, a human would be exposed to the equivalent of 24CAT scans, according to Astrobiology Magazine.

In addition to the drilling apparatus and the schematics, as well as plans for a testing room, NASA will require a paper with a path-to-flight: a rationale behind modifications to take it from an Earth system to a Mars or moon system.

“We also have to research what different things we would have to do with our rig to make it space-capable and space-operation capable,” said Kermit Sah, the overall mechanical design lead. “I did a lot of research on the thermodynamics of water in a Martian environment, and we wanted to show that the method we use is plausible if it were used on Mars.”

In addition to Sah, from Lexington, S.C., this year’s team is made up of Bert Wieliczko, Holderness, N.H.,overall team lead and water filtration lead; Nathan Owen, Fairfax, Va., drill developer lead; and Derek Roesch, Nazareth, Pa., and Samuel Price, Paden City, W.Va., software development and prospecting leads.

WVU’s MIDAS teams have bested the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Tech, the Colorado School of Mines, University of Texas at Austin and the University of Pennsylvania in previous competitions.

The University got involved in NASA robotics competitions at the suggestion of Jon McBride, a retired astronaut and alumnus. Statler College Dean Gene Cilento knew about Klinkhachorn’s experience with robotics and asked him to lead a team that year. With only three months to prepare, they won second place overall in the Lunabotics competition, which challenged teams to mine the moon.

“When we started, nobody knew who was a West Virginia student or what their accomplishment is,” he said.“Well now, NASA people know who West Virginia is in robotics competitions.”