Over the past two days, the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, has been home to an epic showdown between young engineers from around the world. The occasion? NASA's Human Exploration Rover Challenge, an annual competition that pits student-built rovers against each other on an obstacle course of Martian-style buttes, crater holes, and so-called "lunartic" curves.
Nearly 80 teams from both high schools and colleges entered into the 2016 challenge, and faced off on the three-quarter-mile track on Friday, April 8 and Saturday, April. The event has rapidly evolved into a diverse, international gathering since it was inaugurated in 1994, and this year, students flew in from India, Italy, Germany, Russia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and over the US to test drive their DIY space vehicles.
Here are some of the highlights from the challenge, with a special focus on the seemingly insurmountable Martian landscape section.
As you can see, the event is as much a display of athletics as it is a demonstration of rover platforms, with each team designating two drivers to pedal the vehicles along the track. What's more, NASA upped the stakes this time around by requiring the students to fashion their own wheels from scratch.
"Any component contacting the course surface for traction and mobility, including, but not limited to wheels, tracks, treads or belts, cannot be purchased or considered an 'off-the-shelf' product," according to this NASA statement on the new rules. "Plus, as in years past, teams are not allowed to incorporate inflated or uninflated pneumatic tires."
Fortunately, the teams were up to the task, and the two-day event featured many innovative riffs on the rover requirements. The competitors duked it out for prizes in numerous different metrics, including speed, weight, design, and telemetry/electronics. The 2016 contest also debuted a new category for the best sample return demonstration, in which students designed mechanical arms to retrieve liquid, pebbles, large rocks, and soil samples.
The winners were announced Saturday night, with the results listed in full on the Rover Challenge's Twitter page. The team representing Purdue University Calumet swept the college division, winning the titles for speed, design, and sample retrieval, while Rafaelina E. Lebron Flores High School cinched the high school division title. In addition to recognition, the winning teams receive cash prizes in the range of $250 along with a commemorative plaque.
The Rover Challenge is intended to showcase innovative technologies for interplanetary exploration, as well as encourage young engineers to consider careers in spaceflight. But at its heart, the yearly event is really just a good excuse to take some bonafide homemade rovers out for a spin on some premium mock-alien landscapes.