Rumble on the Red Planet

NASA photograph by Lauren Hughes

NASA Armstrong holds Mars Rover Competition

College students built Mars rovers at a competition Oct. 16 through 19 at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Office of Education at the AERO Institute in Palmdale, Calif.

The competition was a workshop coordinated and implemented by AFRC through the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars, or NCAS program. It gathered 40 community college students from around America to learn about engineering, practice teamwork and complete simulated Mars missions using miniature, programmable robotic rovers.

The students split into four teams: Red, Green, Gold and Blue. Each team received a mentor from NASA and a small set of snap-together components to build their rovers. The teams had a simulated budget for their components, which required them to be lean and efficient with their designs.

The rovers completed two challenges. In the first challenge, they retrieved rocks from a mock Martian boulder field. Retrieving larger rocks earned higher scores. The most valuable rock was a smooth pebble placed atop a model of Olympus Mons, thought to be the largest volcano in the solar system.

The teams designed a range of contraptions to retrieve the rocks. Some designs attempted to scoop underneath the rocks, while others used claws to grab the targets and drag them away. Regardless of their design, each rover had to automatically drive to their targets, retrieve them, and then automatically drive back to a home base. Rocks dropped outside home base were not scored.

Although teams could not physically alter their rovers between retrieval runs, they could reprogram them. Some rovers went too far and tumbled off the course, but others drove to and from their targets successfully, which made their teams erupt in cheers.

The Red Team won the rock retrieval challenge using their rover Surmount 1.

Red Team member Lauren Gilmore, a chemical engineering student from Salt Lake City, said participating in the challenge gave her valuable engineering insight.

Gold Team students test their miniature Mars rover before attempting to complete a rescue challenge.

“It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Gilmore said. “I felt like being part of a team like that was just a great experience. This was definitely a small glimpse of the real world of engineering.”

For the next challenge, rovers rescued stranded rovers from the boulder field. Various rover components large and small were scattered across the field. Smaller components and those attached to wheels proved especially challenging to capture, while teams typically retrieved larger components within one or two attempts.

The Green Team, with their rover Guacbot, won the rescue challenge — nearly retrieving the Olympus Mons rock in the process.

Armstrong’s Michelle Haupt, the NASA mentor for the green team, said the experience was rewarding for her team and herself.

“It was exciting to see that their hard work paid off, and that they worked well as a team,” Haupt said. “I love being a mentor. It’s my passion to help inspire the next generation, so it was a lot of fun to talk to students and encourage them to work at NASA.”

Throughout the competition, the teams promoted their rovers on social media and created presentations about why their rovers should win the overall best in competition. Judges from NASA picked the winners of each overall category. The Blue Team won best social media presence, while the award for overall best in competition went to the Green Team.

In addition to the competition, the students toured Armstrong facilities, including the center’s hangars, mission control rooms and subscale aircraft laboratory, and attended multiple career advisement presentations.

Armstrong’s Chief of Strategic Implementation Steve Schmidt and Chief Scientist Al Bowers presented personalized achievement certificates to each student at the workshop’s finale.

Guacbot, a student-built miniature Mars rover, attempts to reach a stranded rover component.

Blue Team member Rohan Vohra, a Cal Poly Pomona business major, said the workshop was a solid route to gain NASA experience.

“This experience is invaluable,” Vohra said. “You can’t learn the lessons they teach you here anywhere else. If you might want to work for NASA, this is the perfect opportunity to get your foot in the door.”

NCAS is a national program organized as a partnership between NASA and Oklahoma State University. The program, which is based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, gives authentic NASA engineering experiences to community college students at workshops nationwide. NCAS students complete a five-week online learning course before participating in the workshops.

AFRC’s Office of Education plans and implements all the center’s educational activities, including workshops for students and educators.

To learn more about NCAS, including related opportunities for middle and high schoolers, visit For more information about AFRC’s Office of Education, visit