After designing a large scale Mars descent system as part of their capstone design course this past year, one Virginia Tech team brought home top honors at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) 2021-2022 Space Systems Design Competition.  Challenged with designing a ‘Martian Moons Exploration Excursion Vehicle’, Virginia Tech’s team Project Chariot claimed first place honors.

Sponsored by the AIAA Foundation, the competition offers an opportunity for students to participate in a simulated real-world problem, and allows them to gain experience and receive useful and constructive feedback from technical experts.

“The themes of this annual competition are always thorough, and present authentic challenges facing upcoming missions,” said faculty advisor Kevin Shinpaugh. “This makes it ideal to incorporate into our senior capstone design process, as it requires a multi-disciplinary team of students and focuses on structures, propulsion, flight and orbital mechanics, power, communications, and system design optimization.” 

This year’s challenge: NASA and international partners are planning the next steps of human exploration of Mars by first establishing assets near the Moon and Lunar surface. Here, astronauts will build and test the systems that are needed for deep space exploration with eventual human missions to the surface of Mars. One key component  to successful Mars surface missions will be the development of large scale Mars descent systems. 

A low cost, commercially procured, Martian Moon Exploration Excursion vehicle could provide the bridge in the incremental path between the Martian orbit and the surface, allowing for more experience with operating crew missions away from Earth’s sphere of influence and preparing for the eventual surface missions. 

Enter dozens of university teams from across the country, who competed in the AIAA challenge, which included submission of a written report and an intense design review by a panel of industry experts. Teams are evaluated on their technical paper, and how well they focused their paper on evaluation criteria and design considerations.

The Virginia Tech team designed a deep space transport vehicle, capable of transporting two astronauts from Earth to a 5-sol orbit around Mars, where it would rendezvous with the designed Exploration Excursion vehicle. Once in the vehicle, the astronauts would be able to land on the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos for sample collection and further science operations. 

The panel of judges commended Virginia Tech on its excellent written report, specifically citing their thorough research, calculations, and the level of detail on trade studies on subsystems, such as the propulsion, sensors, thermal protection, and power.

The Virginia Tech team included recent graduates Nathan Horner, Musfique Mazumder, Jacob McDaniel, Aidan Messick, Shelly Natoli, Carson Peters, Connor Poole, Juliana Ruiter, Tanushree Shinde and Matt Smith. Their faculty advisor was professor Kevin Shinpaugh. The team has been invited to the 2022 AIAA ASCEND event  in Las Vegas, in late October to present their concept and design during a technical session.