On 6 August, 2012, the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars. Its mission was to determine whether the Red Planet could ever have supported life.
Curiosity likes to show off. It took selfies, and a year after arriving on Mars, played Happy Birthday to itself. This was the first time music was played on a planet other than Earth – at least that we know of.
Next year, the Rosalind Franklin Rover will head to Mars on a new mission. Rosalind Franklin’s bag of tricks will include a drill to penetrate deeper into the Martian surface, and instruments to test the sub-surface soil samples for signs of life.
At Monash, the 30-strong Nova Rover team is making its own prototype of a Mars rover, as part of the international University Rover Challenge. In 2018, a Monash crew became the first Australian team to participate in the finals, held in the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah (finishing a respectable 14th out of 96 teams).
On 30 May, the 2019 Monash Nova Rover team will again travel to Utah, along with 35 other teams from 10 countries. They'll again be the only Australians competing.
Over three days, the team members will complete tasks in extreme retrieval and delivery, equipment servicing, autonomous traversal, and science – all tasks the real Mars rover will need to do in support of human exploration.
Benefit of experience
Team leader and fifth-year engineering student Henry Lourey says this year’s 18-strong contingent has benefited greatly from the experience gained by last year’s participants.
“In 2018 they had no idea what to expect. They had to design a drill system to dig into the soil – and they didn’t know what that soil was like. They couldn’t go there and look at it. They didn’t know how sandy it was, or how moist – and that affects the systems you deploy,” he said
This year’s team has the added task of designing on-site systems for analysing the samples it collects for signs of life. The test reflects real-life conditions – missions to Mars aren't yet able to send their collections back to Earth.
Iain Hammond, a fourth-year astrophysics and geoscience student, is the deputy team leader. He's worked with the science team on the tests required to detect biosignatures (the Monash rover will test for lipids, proteins and enzyme activity).
“I would like to know, in my lifetime, if there is life in the planets of our solar system."
On Earth, microbial life has been detected in extreme conditions – “up to five kilometres under the ground, just living on rocks”, he says. “So it's completely possible that this could be the case on Mars as well. If we can drill maybe five to 10 metres, it would be fantastic.”
Mars was Earth-like in its first billion years, and that “is exciting to me”, Iain says. “I would like to know, in my lifetime, if there is life in the planets of our solar system. Like on Mars, or some of Saturn’s moons, or Jupiter’s moons. If we do find it, it'll change everything.”
Henry has a more practical focus: he likes making machines that move. The Nova Rover has to be able to navigate autonomously over rugged terrain, detect objects in the landscape, grasp them with the claw on its robot arm, take pictures of its surroundings, and transmit them over distance with its radio communications mast.
The Curiosity Rover has solar panels to power its batteries and is the size of an SUV. The rovers in the university challenge are smaller, and can carry rechargeable batteries. Each team has a $US18,000 spending limit.
Skills development opportunities
The students are working under Dr Chao Chen, senior lecturer in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and with the support of Dr Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway from the School of Physics and Astronomy. The winning team in the challenge will present its design to NASA.
Dr Chen said the project allowed the students to "develop their hard skills in technology, and soft skills in communication, teamwork and management".
"For example, the locomotive system uses a novel adaptive mechanism for suspension, which allows the rover to overcome large obstacles without losing stability. We've gone through field tests in public parks, private farms and industry fields. The team is now ready for the competition in Utah."
He added that "some of the alumni of the Nova Rover team have since found positions at Gilmour Space, and interned at NASA."
"The opportunities for our students are endless."
Before the May deadline, the on-campus Nova Rover headquarters resembled a fervent garage workshop – students were tinkering with the robot arm and chassis, consulting their computers, and generally looking intensely engaged in their contribution to exploring the next frontier.
“We're so engrossed in what we've done, and the decisions we've made,” says Henry. “And there are 35 other teams who have approached this task in unique ways. It'll be super-interesting, once we get to Utah, to see how they've tackled the same problems.”
Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Professor Elizabeth Croft, said the technical and entrepreneurial skills the Nova Rover student team members were developing were needed to drive innovation in Australia's space industry.
"We need many more engineers like these ones to build a strong and competitive Australian space industry. They have technical knowledge and creative design skills to take these projects from idea to reality."
You can follow the Monash Nova Rover team’s progress in Utah here.