With the attention that Mars has been getting, lately, a lot of people are now excited about the world of opportunities that it presents. However, even before the discovery of water on Mars in September 2015 or the release of the movie The Martian, a small group of students at Cornell have been working to prepare the next generation Mars rover which can work alongside humans on the planet.
The Cornell Mars Rover team participates in the University Rover Challenge, which takes place on the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah. The competition encourages college students to design and build a rover that could be used in the field and rovers are tested on the basis of tasks that resemble what a mission from the future might look like.
Cornell consistently performs well in the competition, according to John Draikiwicz ’17, the team’s engineering manager.
“We’ve gotten better in terms of relative positioning. Our best finish was 2012 when we finished third overall, but each year we have a strong finish in at least one of the subtasks,” he said.
To build the rover CMR follows three phases before it is ready for the competition — design, build and testing.
“The fall semester is the design phase … Throughout this semester we have CAD sessions for our mechanical engineers who actually design pats of the rover,” Draikiwicz said. “Our electrical engineers will choose different components which will be used to accomplish some of the tasks.”
Draikiwicz said that the build phase starts in November and lasts until the end of January.
“All the mechanical members return early from winter break for a period called Jan. Man — January Manufacturing,”he said. “The machine shop is open for about nine hours each day. Spring semester is testing”
With that amount of work being put into the rover, it is easy to see why Corinne Lippe ’16, project manager for the team, said that the team feels like family.
“We’re not a huge team, and we’re not a small team,” Lippe said. “I like to say we’re a perfectly sized team. We’re big enough that you have a lot to do, but small enough that you still feel like family.”
Lippe also said that the team is even more unique because of its focus on Mars.
“The thought of the Mars rover is so cool! You’re going to a different planet, you’re exploring something new,” Lippe said. “And just getting everything tested at that level is unique.”
Beyond the chance to work on a project of their own, students get to learn a lot about different fields of engineering that they might not know about.
“I love dealing with all the different components of engineering,” Lippe said “Getting a taste for electrical, getting a taste for software, and figuring out how to decompose every problem even if it isn’t your specialty. I don’t come from a very strong computer science background, but given a problem, I can decompose it enough to contribute.”
This interdisciplinary exposure starts from the time members join the team, no matter the level of experience. Draikiwicz said that balancing experience with tasks is a tough but important part of the design phase.
“We accept primarily freshman each year, and so part of the design phase is being able to teach them all the tools that were necessary, and being able to prepare them, while also giving them significant tasks that they can work on and call their own,” Draikiwicz said.
The Mars rover is “a project of passion” for anyone who works on it, Draikiwicz said. His favorite part is the testing phase.
“My favorite part is testing, because at that time we have a rover, and while there will always be something that breaks or something that needs to be done,” he said. “It really brings the team together and we can see this rover as we designed it, accomplish the tasks that we hoped it would.”
Lippe agreed that the experience on the project team has been incredibly meaningful. “When after six months of designing, and analyzing, and staring at a computer and simulating, it comes to life in front of you, it makes you realize all the work that you’ve done and that you’re an engineer,” Lippe said. “This is what you get to do for the rest of your life.”