York team wins the Mars Rover Challenge

A team of York science students has placed first in the 2009 University Rover Challenge in Hanksville, Utah.

The York University Rover Tearm (YURT) competed May 28 to 30 in the challenge which took place at the Mars Desert Research Station in a remote part of the Utah desert. The team improved on its 2008 third-place finish with a score of 289 points, which was more than double that of second-place contestents from Utah’s Brighham Young University.

Above: Members of York’s rover team prepare their prototype for the challenge. Photo courtesy of the Mars Society.

The York team is made up of both undergraduate and graduate students from a wide array of disciplines. Teams must design and build an exploration vehicle that is capable of withstanding the harsh conditions on Mars. The competition is hosted by a group of space science and Mars enthusiasts known as the Mars Society. Each year the tasks are different and the competing teams must build a new Mars rover prototype to face the challenges posted by the Mars Society.

The rovers are stand-alone mobile units that function without tethers and are controlled by the teams using wireless remotes. The rover designs simulate explorer units that would be operated by astronauts on, or orbiting around, Mars. The competition takes place in the desert of southern Utah where conditions are harsh and each rover is expected to withstand environmental conditions that include airborne dust and temperatures that can easily reach 100°F. This year’s competition saw a range of harsh weather, which included dust storms and an electrical storm that temporarily halted the upload of competition reports to the Mars Society Web page.

The competition included numerous tasks designed to simulate what would be commanded of a rover on the Martian terrain. The tasks had the rovers compete in a construction exercise that required the rover to find and repair a loose equipment panel; use the rover to locate exact coordinates and communicate them back to the team; complete a survey for life using geophysical and biological assays; and an emergency navigation task that required the rovers to deliver a critical container to a distressed astronaut in the field. The YURT team scored high marks in the survey task and achieved a perfect score in the emergency navigation task.

Above: The York team in Utah. Photo courtesy of the Mars Society.

Eight teams of postsecondary students from North America and Europe competed in the 2009 Mars Society University Rover Challenge. The work of more than 100 students was put through its paces in the event. Many of the teams have spent the better part of the last year designing, building and testing their prototypes. In addition to the actual prototype construction, the teams were also required to submit all their design plans, raise funds to support their entry and submit final budgets for the cost of their rover prototypes.

 "Although many of the tasks for 2009 were similar to those in 2008, the requirements and task courses were much more difficult this year," said Kevin Sloan, director of the University Rover Challenge. "Despite how hard we made things for these teams, they found ways to accomplish amazing feats. All of the judges and I were extremely impressed at what these students have done. Now the hard job for the judges is to devise even harder tasks for the 2010 URC."

YURT was the only Canadian team to compete in the challenge. Brigham Young University placed second and the University of Nevada, Reno finished in third place. 

With files from the Mars Society.