Mars Society at Penn State Competes in University Rover Competitions

UNIVSERSITY PARK – The Mars Society at Penn State University Park was a major factor in Tim Serge’s decision to come to the University. To the senior, an aerospace engineering major from Delaware, its biggest appeal was the fact that it is run solely by undergraduate students. He wanted to make sure he could be active and gain hands-on experience in a field that fascinated him.

“When I was looking at colleges I was really into space exploration,” said Serge, who is also the club’s vice president and treasurer.

The main mission of the Mars Society, an international grassroots organization, is to further the cause of human exploration of Mars. Working on their own research and conducting experiments, the Mars Society at Penn State was one of four schools invited to compete this past summer in the inaugural University Rover Competition at the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah.

It was the first event of its kind for the international Mars Society, so the competition was more of an experiment than a rivalry. The four schools spent the year leading up to the competition developing a tele-operated machine to simulate the work that a rover on Mars would need to do, if controlled by an astronaut on the surface of Mars.

The other universities, Brigham Young University, University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Nevada, Reno, all had a foot up on Penn State because they were able to drive their equipment to the competition. Penn State’s team had to break a lot of it down in order to fit it all on an airplane. Subsequently, when they got to Utah some of their circuit boards had fried and their rover wasn’t able to complete all of its tasks.

“This summer we’ll take more precautions to protect the equipment,” said Penn State Mars Society President Alex Baldowski, a senior civil engineering major from the York/Lancaster area.

The next competition will include at least 24 other universities and each rover will have to complete four tasks, as opposed to last year’s two basic tasks. The introductory competition this past summer allowed the Penn State team to test-drive their rover across the Utah terrain, which Baldowski said will be a great help for next year’s competition.

More members would also help the team, Baldowski said — specifically, students interested in science. He hopes they can recruit other students proficient in biology and geology — their knowledge would be helpful with two of the tasks in next summer’s event. An open-ended geology task will require an analysis of a few of the sites the teams will visit, while a biology task will require the team to take soil concentrations and read pH levels and subsurface temperatures. In addition to those tasks, a third will require the rover perform emergency navigation, where the team will drive it to a simulated astronaut in distress and drop off a yet-unknown container, no bigger than 1′ x 1′ x 6″ and weighing between 12 and 13 pounds. The final task, construction, will require a panel to be bolted into place within a certain degree of accuracy.

The team will use the basic body of the rover they used in last year’s competition, but will make various additions and improvements for it to be able to complete all four tasks. Baldowski said their current rover is made mainly of aluminum, has a simple robotic arm, 4-wheel drive and differential steering — it moves like a tank. It weighs about 75 pounds, is battery operated and has a camera that sits on the mast, four feet off the ground, for viewing. This year, the team hopes to add cameras and devise a better robotic arm with more degrees of freedom plus the ability to pick up objects far away and nearby and to use modular attachments — a scoop, rock abrasion tool and gripper — that would assist in completion of the tasks.

Just as Tim Serge hoped before he became a member of the Mars Society, everyone gets involved with the project. There’s a mechanical team, an electronics team and a programming team. Baldowski said they currently have 15 to 20 members but need more.

“It’s a great organization because I always learn something new,” he said. “Everyone teaches everyone. The mechanics have shown us how to use the equipment, the programmers how to code. That’s why I like the club so much — everyone is a part of the puzzle. Even freshmen get to dive right in.”

Baldowski also likes the Mars Society because of the friendships he has made and the community service they do. In addition to working on the rover, in preparation for the competition, Baldowski said outreach is a huge part of the Mars Society. America is lacking in science and technology, he said, so it’s important to get young students interested in these fields. Members hold different educational events in elementary schools and participate in the annual Space Day and Astro Fest at Penn State.

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