To Mars and Beyond: Students Design Tools for Mars Exploration

Cutout by Jason Sadhanandh | Photo Editor


“Comet to Mars,” a team from UTD with no aerospace background, defied expectations in NASA’s Mars XR 2 Global Challenge — a science design competition — coming to a 13th global rank and second in the Americas out of nearly 4,000 competitors.

The team consisted of four ATEC majors — seniors Andrew Duarte and Michael Tran, Evan Acuna and Chris Gauthier — as well as computer science and finance senior Alejandro Garcia. The competition unfolded in two distinct phases; in the first phase, participants were tasked with crafting a written report, outlining scenarios that astronauts might encounter on Mars. The second phase was the hands-on segment, where the team created assets including rovers and robot dogs tailored to the scenarios from the first phase. Although they came from diverse backgrounds, their shared desire to seize an opportunity that could enhance their professional and personal prospects served as the primary motivation for them to participate in this competition. Garcia said he wanted to participate in the competition both for personal and professional improvement.

“I am going into aerospace, before graduating I wanted to do something related to NASA,” Garcia said. “And NASA is pretty cool to have on my resume and I am pretty sure that as my career continues to grow, I’ll be able to stand out for the next opportunities I chase by having something completely outside what I was trained for.”

Though the competition was predominantly an engineering challenge, the team brought a robust set of skills to the table, from 3D modeling to game development; it was their common interest for aerospace that brought them together. The assets that were developed were first sketched out in 2D, then modeled and animated using Unreal Engine and Maya before being added to the Martian XR environment provided by NASA. The team developed a total of 22 assets, from gemstones to gliders to robotic dogs, which they believe gave them an edge over their competitors as the other teams developed 2 to 3 assets.

The achievements of “Comet to Mars” serve as a testament to the team’s creativity and collaboration. Despite coming from different educational backgrounds, it was the competitive and collaborative spirit of the team that helped them persevere.

While competing, each team member had autonomy in modeling and animating the assets, which helped maintain their focus.

“I was always there before any problem could occur,” Gracia said. “And I always tried to maintain the excitement and creativity which helped keep the collaborative spirit, while remaining focused and competitive.”

The team members showcased their work by setting up a gallery at ATEC to display the assets they had developed for the challenge, with some brought to life through 3D printing. An immersive VR experience allowed visitors to step into the scenarios the team had envisioned and brought to life through models.

“Everything coming together and presenting it to the public was a real moment of pride,” Acuna said.


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