Take a 20-minute drive down Cow Dung Road, outside of Hanksville, Utah, and you’ll stumble across the Mars Desert Research Station. This cluster of white buildings — webbed together by a series of covered walkways — looks a little alien, as does the red, desolate landscape that surrounds it.
“The ground has this crust that you puncture through, and it makes you feel like your footprints are going to be there for a thousand years,” said Sam Craven, a senior leading the Brigham Young University team here for the University Rover Challenge. “Very bleak and dry, but very beautiful also.”
This remote chunk of Utah is a Mars analogue, one of roughly a dozen locations on Earth researchers use to test equipment, train astronauts and search for clues to inform the search for life on other planets. While deployed at the station, visiting scientists live in total isolation and don mock space suits before they venture outside.
On this day though, 31 teams out of the more than 100 teams from 15 countries that applied are here to compete. The students showed off their rovers and ran them through a series of grueling challenges.
Longtime judge Graham Lau, a Boulder, Colorado-based astrobiologist with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, said the work students put in is truly innovative. Many go on to have successful careers at national space agencies or private companies.
“Long before we flew Ingenuity as the very first powered flight on Mars, students in the URC were building drones and then flying those drones off of the back of their rovers,” he said.
Oftentimes, getting to the station is as challenging as the competition itself. Participants must wrangle visas, get their delicate equipment through customs and make repairs on the fly. Director Kevin Sloan said they “often joke with teams that the URC is a logistics competition with a little robotics thrown in.”
One team’s tools were stolen on their way to Utah this year, while another had a part damaged by the Department of Homeland Security. Yet another group learned a brutal lesson after desert winds toppled and broke their communications antenna the day before competition.
“The emotions are all there,” Sloan said. “Things definitely get amplified because it’s a competition.”
BYU boldly goes
“I think everybody wants to work on space robotics,” Craven said. “They might not admit it because their application to NASA got declined, but I'm OK with admitting it. Working in space robotics would be amazing.”
BYU’s rover has many of the same features as Perseverance, which NASA piloted on Mars in 2021, although it’s much smaller, about the size of a washing machine.
“You can sort of picture the six wheels, and then there's the box in the middle. And then on the front, there's a three foot tall piece of extruded aluminum,” Craven said. “And then on that elevator mast, we stick our robotic arm.”
Each team tackled four randomly-assigned tasks over three days of competition.
The team faced two back-to-back challenges on day one. First, they made repairs to a mock lander. The rover pilots choose from a list of tasks — such as picking up a canister and placing it into a drawer on the lander, plugging in a USB stick or typing out a word on a keyboard — and earn points for each successful completion. To carry out such precise movements, operators need to rely on the rover’s cameras and six-jointed arm.
The second challenge is an autonomous navigation task, during which the rover piloted itself to a handful of GPS coordinates without direction from the students in the nearby U-Haul trailer that stands in as the command post.
Only a few team members operate the robot at any given time. The rest mill about outside and the two groups are cut off from communicating with each other. If the rover stops working or appears to struggle, it can be excruciating to watch. At one point early in the navigation task, something went wrong and BYU’s rover beelined up a steep cliff, nearly toppling itself.
“It’s a little bit like having an appendectomy with no anesthesia. You just sorta sit there and watch and hope and pray and trust in the trained individuals,” Craven said.
On day two, the rover went looking for life. There’s a particular compound found in most living cells, flavin adenine dinucleotide, that glows green when exposed to blue light. The robot has a special camera with a blue laser the operators use to test three different types of soil.
One had been seeded with spirulina, a type of blue-green algae commonly used as a health supplement. Under the laser, it lights up. Next to it was a pan of diatomaceous earth, the fossilized remains of tiny, aquatic organisms called diatoms. Because they’re dead, they don’t glow, but an onboard microscope clearly showed that the sample is made up of tiny shells from once-living animals. The last pan, containing sand from the site itself, had been cooked in the oven, rendering it sterile. None of the team’s tests detected any signs of life.
Lastly, the rover used an auger to suck up a sample of sand to bring back to the judges.
In 2022, BYU’s rover malfunctioned during this task, and they weren't able to use any of their equipment. This year’s performance brought with it some redemption, said science lead Jaxon Jones.
“I was really glad to be able to show off everything that we built and showcase our work.”
The final frontier
The judges posted the scores as they currently stand on day three. BYU was in third place, with a shot at winning. But the last test, called extreme delivery, had been the hardest for other teams.
The rover needed to assist astronauts working in the field by finding and delivering tools or samples. The challenge is gated, meaning teams couldn’t move on to the next step until they’d earned a minimum number of points. To start, drivers guided the rover across the desert to a rock garden and went hunting for a mystery fossil. So far, only two teams, one from Mexico and Bangladesh, had managed to find it.
BYU senior Elizabeth Clark maneuvered the rover’s arm during the search.
“I've been telling people all week, ‘I'm going to Mars.’ And now it's really true,” Clark said. “I don't think I could ever be a real astronaut, but this is pretty close, and it's pretty awesome.”
Almost immediately there were problems. The communications antenna that tracks the position of the rover automatically stopped responding, forcing the operators to manually direct it. The rover successfully opened a toolbox, and a clue inside told the drivers the general area they should search. But with only one geologist on their team, they weren’t quite sure what they were looking for.
Soon, the communications array started to lag, and it took eight seconds for commands to reach the rover. The team attempted to restart the connection with only a few minutes remaining, but it never came back online. Once time is up, they couldn't even pilot the rover off the course and had to carry it back to the start.
Despite the setback, Clark said that overall, there was still a sense of a job well done.
“I'm feeling pretty confident,” she said. “I think we've scored really high and I'm really proud of what we've done.”
The next generation
A light rain fell as the teams gathered for the awards ceremony. The students sheltered against the research station, scraping thick, wet clay from their shoes. Others wandered the striated hills, snapping photos of the landscape. The team from Australia blasted Men at Work’s “Land Down Under.” Loudly.
The ceremony began with the announcement of a special award given out for the last few years to honor a standout student in the science task. The scores still hadn’t been shared, so it was a surprise when BYU’s science lead, Jones, was called up to collect the trophy — a rock hammer.
Despite their slip on the last challenge, BYU maintained its position and captured third place behind Australia’s Monash University and West Virginia University. It’s the first time the team has made the podium since 2017.
For this group of seniors, a win will help bolster their resumes. Already, some have leveraged the experience to land prestigious jobs or internships. Many, including Craven and Clark, are moving on to do advanced degrees.
Reflecting on the importance of the URC, competition judge Lau said it goes beyond engineering prowess to the commitments students make to themselves and to each other.
When one team struggles, others often step in to help. After the team from Alabama had their tools stolen while passing through Kansas City, the group from the Missouri University of Science and Technology invited them to their campsite to lend them what they needed. And that antenna that the wind knocked over? Students from the University of Michigan were able to find the team from Monash University a spare.
“That, for me, has been one of the most important things to see, the camaraderie and the teamship and the care that these people really have for each other,” Lau said. “What the students really are doing is building themselves up as the next generation who will work on our Mars rovers and robots across the field.”