A rover designed by the Cornell Mars Rover project team.

Courtesy of Cornell Mars Rover

A rover designed by the Cornell Mars Rover project team.

February 27, 2020

Cornell Project Team Practices for Mars Exploration

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With Elon Musk-esque dreams of promoting the exploration and eventual settlement on Mars, the Cornell Mars Rover project team crafts rovers designed to analyze rocks for signs of life and for repairing spacecrafts.

The 30-member team focuses on designing a rover that can assist humans with research on Mars by completing specifically programmed missions, testing their work in annual competitions against other college teams. Mimicking a real Mars mission, team members can only see what is happening through cameras that communicate with the base station via radio.

According to the group’s website, “each team must design, build, and operate a rover to compete against other contending universities in a variety of field tasks that actual Mars rovers face on missions to the Red Planet,” at the University Rover Challenge, with the winning team going on a trip to the annual International Mars Society Convention.

In this annual competition at the Mars Desert Research Center, college students build the next generation of robotic rovers. Around 90 teams enter the competition in the fall and submit a paper and a video of the robot’s performance in the spring. If a team qualifies, they compete in the finals at the end of May.

Since its inception in 2016, CMR has qualified for the finals in Utah every year despite increasing competition. In fact, the team has been on an upward trajectory, placing eleventh, tenth and sixth from 2016 to 2019.

“Sixth wasn’t good enough for us last year, so we have completely redesigned two major systems this year and both audacious redesigns are nearing completion,” said Tim Sierk ’20, lead of the AstroTech Subteam, one of seven subteams on CMR.

The rover is designed in-house with most mechanical equipment made on campus, according to Sierk.

One of CMR’s most pressing matters is the quick turnover of new rovers every year, CMR builds a new robotic rover for the competition, which is “easier said than done,” Sierk said.

In the process of building a new rover, the team reuses as much as they can from previous years, even though they often have to redesign large parts of it, often tallying more than ten hours per person per week. Right now, the team is preparing for its latest milestone, with members working from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

“Our team has been able to complete the four missions every year,” Sierk continued. “The missions are quite difficult; for example, the world champions only scored 70 percent of the total points last year, and the curve is steep at the top.”

Despite the challenge of periodically making new rovers, Sierk said, “more than ever, this year’s rover is fit to go to space.”