UCF’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space are living up to their name. This month, members of SEDS will be competing in the NASA Student Launch competition after tens of thousands of hours of work on a system designed to collect samples from Mars.

The team will be traveling to Huntsville, Alabama, on April 12 with their rocket, rover and launch box in tow. They’ll get to tour the Marshall Space Flight Center and participate in the competition, which ends April 17.

Per the competition’s mission, the rover will automatically find a payload, usually something like a rock or other sample, drive over to the rocket and insert the payload into the rocket.

Then the rocket will be raised on the launch box and be sent a mile off the ground.

The team has the potential to win $5,000 for the student launch component and up to $25,000 for the Centennial Challenges Mars Ascent Vehicle component, along with other trophy awards and peer awards that teams vote on for each other, said NASA media relations spokeswoman Angela Storey.

They’ve been working on their designs for eight months, starting with an outline of what their rocket would do and ending up with a 12.5 -foot rocket, an autonomous robot and an automatic launch box. The team had to go through several reviews in which they presented their designs to NASA, which Diego Ospina, team lead of the Mars Ascent Vehicle, said was intense.

“We literally have to get in front of them, then we explain our design, then at the end of that they ask us questions,” he said. “So it’s really intense, and it kind of gives you a feel of how it’s gonna be working out in the industry.”

Lindsay Davis, team lead for autonomous ground support equipment, added some challenges beyond what was expected of her team.

“I gave us new constraints like, ‘Let’s imagine we’re really on Mars. Let’s do a little bit more than the competition requires,’” she said.

She’s most excited for the robot’s suspension system. It has two separate feet controlled by separate scissor lifts, which prevents it from tipping over on uneven terrain. A sensor inside the rover will be able to communicate with the feet and deploy them down or raise them up independently.

“So hopefully that will give us more control, and we’ll be able to go over a little bit more rough terrain,” she said.

Two of the biggest challenges they’ve faced, she said, have been funding and lab space. They got access to a United Airlines hangar near the airport to build in, and through a Kickstarter campaign raised more than double their original fundraising goal of $1,500, raising a total of $4,535.

The competition itself is a design challenge based on a NASA mission, according to the Student Launch website. Research and ideas from participating teams can be used for future NASA missions.

Storey said that NASA looks to high school and college students for this research because they want to “engage and inspire the next generation of NASA employees” and that the competition gives students hands-on experience. They go through the same technical reviews that NASA’s engineers do.

Davis said this hands-on experience helped her land a summer internship. But before that starts, she has to finish her robot, which means just a few more hours of work on top of the thousands her team has put in already.

The team is finishing up their building and getting ready to go to Alabama. They will be at the competition for five days.


Allison Miehl is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.

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