Illinois Team Competes in Mars Flyby Design Competition

2014-06-04

STK Model displaying the orbital track of the flyby mission.
STK Model displaying the orbital track of the flyby mission.
A team of Engineering at Illinois students will compete among 10 finalists chosen to design a manned-mission flyby of the planet Mars.

Members of the 18-person Illinois team, Illini Mars Mission for the Opportunity to Revitalize The American Legacy (IMMORTAL), will present the team’s work in August during the 16th Annual International Mars Society Convention in League City, Texas. Monetary prizes will be presented to the top five teams, with first prize carrying a $10,000 award.

The contest required competitors to design a safe, inexpensive, and simple two-person flyby of Mars for the year 2018. The relatively quick timeline was determined to make use of an advantageous alignment of the planets. Co-team leaders Braven Leung, a 2014 Aerospace Engineering bachelor’s degree graduate, and Christopher Lorenz, an AE undergraduate, said the short timeline and focus on cost efficiency triggered IMMORTAL’s design using existing technology.

“Our novel idea is in the way the architecture comes together, and how the different pieces work together” to sustain human passengers, Lorenz said. “It’s really difficult to send enough mass to support two people in space for that long.”

IMMORTAL’s plan calls for launches of two rockets. The first would be a Space X Falcon Heavy rocket that would consist of a Dragon capsule to carry the crew into space, a Cygnus habitat in which the crew would spend most of the 501-day journey, and a service module to hold the crew’s life support systems. These payloads would be significantly less mass than the Falcon Heavy’s maximum capacity, so the team projected the rocket would have enough propellant left over to help perform part of the trans-Mars injection burn.

Since no one existing vehicle currently can carry enough mass to support humans on such a long journey, IMMORTAL’s plans called for a second launch shortly after the first. A Delta IV Heavy rocket would be launched, carrying a Delta Cryogenic Second State propulsion module that would dock with the Dragon-Cygnus assembly in Low Earth Orbit. The Falcon Heavy Upper Stage would then ignite, sending the assembly into an elliptical orbit around Earth. That stage would be discarded and the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage would burn to send the spacecraft out of Earth’s orbit on to Mars.

The Delta stage would then be discarded, and the Dragon capsule would detach from the Cygnus module. The Dragon capsule would then spin 180 degrees and dock with the Cygnus so the crew could move over from Dragon to Cygnus for the rest of the journey.

Within 224 days, the Dragon-Cygnus vehicle would reach Mars and perform the flyby at an altitude of 100 kilometers, bringing the crew close enough to observe the planet and its moons in detail. The orbital energy of Mars would then effectively boomerang the spacecraft around for the return trip. The remaining 271 days would be spent traveling back to Earth, with the crew moving from the Cygnus to the Dragon module for re-entry.

Using NASA’s Project Cost Estimating Capability framework, the team set the budget at $1,493 million.

The IMMORTAL members first heard of the competition in November, and decided to pursue it in January. They worked with Steven D’Urso, AE Lecturer and Aerospace Systems Engineering Program Coordinator, as their faculty sponsor.

Submitting plans in March were 38 teams, representing 56 universities and 15 countries. IMMORTAL learned in late March that the Illinois team’s 50-page paper was selected among the 10 finalists. Lorenz said much of the team’s work involved researching online NASA publications to determine what types of equipment would work together best. “There was no cost other than brain power,” he said.

The team used American-made structures in the design as part of IMMORTAL’s effort to “revitalize the American legacy.”

Team members, their departments, and their responsibilities are:

  • Braven Leung, AE, Co-Team Leader/Risk Analysis. Organizing and leading team meetings as well as delegating responsibilities. Quantifying the largest risks for this mission.
  • Chris Lorenz, AE, Co-Team Leader/Cost Analysis. Organizing and leading team meetings as well as delegating responsibilities. Determining the cost of this architecture on a component by component basis.
  • Mohammed Alvi, AE, Propulsion. Choosing and detailing the propulsion system that will transfer the astronauts from Earth’s orbit to Mars on the flyby trajectory.
  • Alexander Case, AE, Re-entry and Landing. Selecting and validating the system for re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at the conclusion of the mission.
  • Andrew Clarkson, AE, Attitude Control and Navigation. Developing system that would control the spacecraft’s orientation and allow it to keep track of its position in space.
  • Logan Damiani, AE, Launch Vehicle/Payload Integration. Choosing the launch vehicles and determining what kind of payload interfaces would be necessary to accommodate the design.
  • Shoham Das, AE, Environmental Control and Life Support. Responsible for sizing and selecting components for the system that provides water and air to the astronauts.
  • John Fuller, AE, Communications. Conducted trade studies regarding the optimal communications technologies to best keep the astronauts in contact with the Earth.
  • Thomas Gordon, Material Science and Engineering, Radiation Protection. Developing a system to protect the astronauts from Galactic Cosmic Radiation and Solar Particle Events.
  • Pranika Gupta, AE, Habitat Design. Selecting an off the shelf technology and determining the necessary modifications for the crew habitat.
  • Andrew Holm, AE, Power. Configuring the power system of the habitat and determining the solar array and battery technologies to be used.
  • Guangting Lee, AE, Human Factors. Outlining the most important physical and psychological issues the astronauts will face and developing solutions to them.
  • Brandon Leung, Mechanical Science and Engineering, Structures Modelling. Modelling the habitat and propulsion stages to give a quality visual representation of the mission.
  • Scott Neuhoff, AE, Orbital Mechanics. Simulating the orbit the spacecraft will take as well as calculating the propellant requirements for the mission.
  • Anthony Park, Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering, Radiation Protection. Developing a system to protect the astronauts from Galactic Cosmic Radiation and Solar Particle Events.
  • Jeffrey Pekosh, AE, Re-entry and Landing. Selecting and validating the system for re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at the conclusion of the mission.
  • Sri Krishna Potukuchi, AE, Environmental Control and Life Support. Responsible for sizing and selecting components for the system that provides water and air to the astronauts.
  • Kelsey White, AE and Engineering Physics, Science Payload. Developing a set of scientific experiments that fit into this mission’s sparse mass budget.