Toothpaste, Cheez-Its, and Sand, Oh, My!

News coming out of Hanksville, Utah, this week, while slow to find its way out of the desert, shows that all kinds of things can go wrong but it’s how students react that tells the story.

The Miners’ new carbon fiber and plexiglass wheel design has proven extremely successful in the loose desert soil/sand/dust, but we’ve not heard how it performed in the boulder fields.

Day one of this week’s Mars Society competition revealed a manufacturing flaw in Horizon’s gear system that threatened to knock S&T out of the points race. The 3D-printed plastic gears kept binding and jamming no matter what the Miners could do, so frantic messages were sent back to earth (Rolla). “Strip Phoenix of drive gears and send them out on an emergency (FedEx) mission to Mars (Hanksville)!”

Ground controllers pulled gears from last year’s Rover while the amazing folks at the S&T Library restarted their mothballed 3D-printers to produce even more parts. Simultaneously the team, echoing Apollo 13’s mantra of “Failure is not an option!” got down to business with what few tools they had on hand.

Maybe the gears were manufactured to too-tight tolerances for the job; maybe they needed more “slop” in the gear train. We’re not sure who came up with this amazing idea but they solved it by turning the Rover’s power against itself. Students made an abrasive compound of toothpaste mixed with sand, removed the load from the gears, packed the teeth with the goo and turned on the motors. That whitish mud did the job, polishing the gear surfaces just enough to clear up the problem. 800px-Cheez-It-Crackers How did the Cheez-It crackers come in to play? Best we can figure the cooking oil in the tasty little orange crackers served as the perfect “rinse and lube” that got Horizon back in full operation.

The Rover Challenge schedule helped, too. The temporary loss of the gear system didn’t hurt S&T’s performance in the first day’s Astronaut Assist task, and bought them time to experiment. Remarkably the team had solved the problem even before the parts from earth (Rolla) arrived overnight.

Given the time needed to send a real rescue package from earth to an actual Mars mission, astronauts/Martians would have to solve such problems in real time with only their wits and what the could scrounge from the space vehicle.

And that, Gentle Readers, is what experiential learning at Missouri S&T is all about.

Wanna know the latest? Check out the team’s Facebook page where they proudly announced they took 5th place out of 22 international teams, including a perfect 100% on Science!

Next on the docket? The S&T Mars Rover Team heads to Poland in September to take on one of the world’s best teams, the graduate student group that won last year’s Utah event.

Which begs the question, where will they find a desert in Poland?