U of T Robotics for Space Exploration (RSX) club will compete for the first time in the University Rover Challenge (URC) at the Mars Desert Research Station. MEDIA PHOTO

A group of U of T students is sending a rover to Mars — or at least, to the closest approximation of it. This year the U of T Robotics for Space Exploration (RSX) club will compete for the first time in the University Rover Challenge (URC) at the Mars Desert Research Station, in Hanksville, Utah. The URC is an annual international competition that challenges university undergraduates to build a working rover of the type used for exploration on Mars.

The RSX is a diverse group of students — the club includes engineers, specialists in human biology, physicists, and students from Rotman Commerce — who are united by a shared ambition. Karim Koreitem, co-founder of the RSX, explains:  “We’re an undergraduate team, but we have high goals: sending humans to space. We feel that space robotics really paves the way for humans to follow afterwards.”

Competing in the URC is a milestone for the club ­— a sign of the team’s passion and commitment. Competitors design and fund their rovers, which are judged on their ability to complete four tasks based on navigation of difficult terrain, data collection, astronaut assistance, and equipment servicing. The teams are also scored on a presentation. The highest-scoring team wins a trip to present at the annual International Mars Society Convention, as well as a cash prize.

The URC is set up to mimic the challenges in actual space science work. Utah’s arid and rocky geography mimics conditions on Mars, and, like the NASA scientists who worked on Curiosity, the team will not be able to interact with the rover directly. The RSX will be able to use video feeds and other sensory data provided by the robot from a mission control, but they won’t be allowed to watch their creation in action.

Kevin Olsen, a fourth-year PhD student and science advisor to the RSX, notes that the university teams do have one definite advantage over their NASA counterparts: “These competitors can control the rover in real time…There is no direct communication between rovers on Mars and Earth. Those rovers have to be semi-autonomous.” Though NASA mission control can send instructions, it’s never guaranteed their instructions will reach the rover on Mars in time to stop it from cheerfully driving off a cliff. It’s a slight but crucial difference. No in-field repairs are allowed in the URC, but that teams can receive real-time feedback ensures that rovers stay functional and avoid crashes throughout the competition.

The RSX’s engineering team is supported by its science team, which  does research during the team’s projects. Kiah Bransch and Masha Itkina are the science team co-leads. Bransch has been studying satellite imagery and topographic maps of the region. The team’s engineers need to have data to design their rover’s chassis. Utah’s heat also poses a challenge, and sensitive electronics can overheat, and, without those sensors, the team will not be able to gather data.

Without its wheels attached, the RSX rover is small enough to fit in a suitcase, but it contains an impressive number of sensors and tools. “There’s pH, moisture, temperature, humidity,” lists Bransch. The team will use spectrometry to look for cyanobacteria during the competition. “Our role on the team is to find life,” Itkina says. Laughing, she adds, “Hopefully, we’ll be able to find something in Utah!”

Over the summer, four or five representatives will travel south to compete with their rover; then the RSX will begin working on their next project. Though the urc has been a major focus for the team, it isn’t the be-all and end-all. They also have tentative plans to travel with their rover in the Toronto area to spread excitement about the future of space exploration. After that, maybe they’ll build a high-altitude balloon. For the RSX, the sky is no limit.

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