Wisconsin high school holds its own with universities in Nasa contest

This team of Wisconsin rocket-makers were the only high schoolers competing in Nasa's Mars Ascent Vehicle Challenge. Credit: Nasa/MSFC/Charles Beason

Wisconsin’s Madison West High School rocket club took second place in Nasa’s Mars Ascent Vehicle Challenge, edging out a field of university rocketeers to take.

Nasa’s plans for exploring Mars call for a multi-stage robotic sample return mission. A rover would collect geological samples and deposit them in a “cache”. A retrieval mission would land near the cache, collect the samples, and launch them into orbit. The final stage would collect the samples in Mars orbit and return them to Earth. Scientists would study the samples to help plan future human missions.

Since nobody has ever done something like this before, Nasa is looking for innovative approaches. The space agency’s Centennial Challenges give people from beyond its traditional pool of contractors a chance to bring very different perspectives. It awards prizes to teams of students or inventors who achieve goals in contests that focus on particular technologies Nasa needs for future missions.

The red soil of an Alabama farm served as launch site for student-designed rockets. Credit: Nasa/MSFC/Emmett Given

The MAV Challenge addresses the second phase of a sample return mission. Teams must robotically retrieve cached samples, load the samples into a high performance rocket, launch the rocket, and deploy the samples “in orbit”. The three top-performing teams receive cash prizes worth up to $50,000.

This year’s MAV Challenge was held over the weekend in Alabama. The $50,000 first prize and $10,000 third prize went to Cornell University and Tarleton State University respectively. The $15,000 second prize went to Madison West High School. They were the only high school team to compete in the MAV Challenge.

Nasa Deputy Associate Administrator Dennis Andrucyk said in Nasa's press release “I am impressed with the innovation, enthusiasm and spirit these young teams have delivered.” 

Monsi Roman, Centennial Challenges program manager, added “We are so proud of each team for rising to this challenge with such rigor and passion. Autonomous systems like these could one day be used on the surface of Mars or even help here on Earth.” 

The MAV Challenge was part of a larger rocket-building contest, Nasa Student Launch. High school, college, and university teams spent a year designing high performance rockets that reach a one mile altitude. The teams must follow Nasa’s own development process and pass a series of design reviews conducted by the same engineers who design Nasa’s space missions.

The sixteenth year of the contest brought nearly fifty teams from twenty-two states to an Alabama farm near the Marshall Space Flight Center. Florida’s student rocketeers swept the altitude prize with Plantation High School and the University of Florida leading their respective categories. MSFC’s Ustream archive has videos from the launch days.