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249720_Mars Ice 2019
Brian Coulter, left, a senior from Tullahoma majoring in aerospace engineering, and Alex Twilla, a junior from Milan majoring in computer engineering, stand next to UT's entry in this year's Mars Ice Challenge.

A team of students from UT’s Tickle College of Engineering will soon put months of hard work to the test as they participate in NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge.

By being only one of nine teams chosen for the finals—and having made the last round for the third consecutive year—the team has already shown its expertise, but is aiming for more.

“We’ve improved on last year’s design by developing a single integrated tool head that can accomplish all of the competition objectives—excavation, prospecting, melting, and water collection,” said Brian Coulter, a senior from Tullahoma majoring in aerospace engineering. “In years past, different modules were necessary to accomplish all of these tasks. We’ve gained so much from the experience of taking this project from mere concept drawings to an actual functioning machine.”

Coulter added that it was “exciting” to see students from different disciplines working together on the device, something that they wouldn’t otherwise get to experience until their senior design projects.

This year’s iteration of the competition called Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts—Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Special Edition: Moon to Mars Ice and Prospecting Challenge highlights an area of great importance to NASA’s future plans—the ability to utilize lunar or Martian water sources.

Related: NASA Details Its Planned Lunar and Mars Missions

Using that water is a key step, as eliminating the need to bring water on such long journeys frees up thousands of pounds of weight for spacecraft that can be allocated for other needs.

Teams are given a certain set of parameters, with the overall goal of developing a device capable of accessing ice under the Martian surface, but are largely free to pursue that goal with any design they choose.

UT’s team, from the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering (MABE), chose a device they ironically named This Is Not A Drill, which is, in fact, a drill designed for extracting ice from deep below the surface.

In addition to the device, teams must also make a technical presentation on how they went about designing their machine, what challenges they had to overcome, and why they settled on their final design.

“This project is a great integration of our team’s engineering backgrounds combined with a real hands-on challenge,” said MABE Department Head Matthew Mench. “The team has worked really hard this past year rebuilding and improving their prototype, and it’s exciting to see them make it to the finals again.”

NASA plans to return humans to the moon by 2024 and establish a long-term presence on the surface as a precursor to missions deeper into space, including Mars.

While the 1960s program that led to the first moon landings was known as Apollo, this program is called Artemis, named for Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, and could use some of the designs and knowledge gained by the competition.

The finals take place in Hampton, Virginia, June 5–9.


David Goddard (865-974-0683,

Andrea Schneibel (865-974-3993,