York’s future space scientists and engineers display the right stuff

A group of York science students took third place in the 2008 University Rover Challenge on June 6 and 7 in Hanksville, Utah,. The challenge required college and university students to custom-design prototype Mars rovers and operate them remotely in an undeveloped desert area in the American west.

As part of the international University Rover Challenge, organized by the Mars Society, a group of Mars enthusiasts, contestants had to wrestle with a host of potential obstacles emulating the extraterrestrial conditions of Mars. The rovers – commanded by wireless remote, as if operated by astronauts on, or orbiting around, Mars – would have to be capable of contending with sloped terrain, airborne dust, light rain and temperatures reaching up to 37.78 C (100 F). The competition entailed several operational tasks: geology, soil characterization, emergency navigation and construction.

Right: York’s remotely-operated prototype Mars rover. Photograph courtesy of The Mars Society

York’s rover started out as the inspiration of York science and engineering student Jesse Tebbs, who brought his idea to the attention of fellow students at the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space at York University (SEDS-York). Before long, a core group of 11 students had organized themselves into what Tebbs characterized as a "hockey team" where all members performed specialized functions, but collaboratively, and without the direct assistance of faculty members. York space engineering Professor Regina Lee served as their primary mentor. They created three working units: electrical, mechanical and administrative. The interdisciplinary team included graduate and undergraduates students from various Faculty of Science & Engineering programs, including environmental science, space engineering, space science and computer engineering.

Perhaps the largest obstacle the competitors faced was the real-world challenge of raising sufficient funds to create their rover. The rules of the contest limited the cash budget of the project to US$12,000. The York University Rover Team (YURT) raised some funds by selling 200 long-stemmed roses that were personally delivered by the rover. Remote operators steered the rover around campus obstacles – office furniture, desks and wayward staff – until it reached the gift recipient. They were able to secure $3,000 from the Faculty of Science & Engineering, another $3,000 from York’s Student Activity Fund Allocation (SAFA) and $1,000 from the Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science (CRESS). Thoth Technologies, provider of space systems and information services, loaned the YURT a spectrometer, which is used on space missions to determine the composition of matter. The team also received external funding of $3,500 from COM DEV, the largest Canadian-based designer and manufacturer of space hardware subsystems.

"We recognized that to do this would take a dedicated team of people who would have to put a lot of time into this and we wanted to show our support and encouragement. We came down to meet the team and see the rover and we came away very impressed with the individuals involved and the rover they had designed and built," said Terry Girard, a business development manager in COM DEV’s Canadian division. "We feel it is very important as a company to support academia and to foster and encourage talented individuals willing to challenge themselves."

Left: The York University Rover Team. Photogragh courtesy of The Mars Society

The team also enjoyed some priceless contributions facilitated by the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Science & Engineering. They brought aboard Gordon Shepherd, professor emeritus of space science and director of CRESS. In addition to the CRESS funding, Shepherd offered his expertise and access to CRESS facilities and tools. Shepherd’s involvement also gave them the clout to secure more assistance. Faculty machinists offered their services in parts-making. The name of one helpful machinist, Ator Sarkisoff, ended up being incorporated into the name of the lizard-looking robot, nicknamed Atorasaurus.

Richard Hornsey, associate dean of the Faculty of Science & Engineering in York’s School of Engineering, noted that the Faculty had been interested in setting up some long-term projects similar to the solar cars at other universities, but reflecting York’s unique areas of technical specialty. "These kinds of projects are great for building student skills and motivation, as well as for raising the profile of our school. So when a team of enthusiastic students, along with their equally enthusiastic faculty mentor Regina Lee, presented their idea of competing in the Mars Society’s rover challenge, I was keen to give them as much support as possible. I must say that the team has been great – they worked really hard and they represented York University admirably."

First place went to Oregon State University and second went to the University of Nevada Reno. The York University Rover Team was the only Canadian entry.