To Mars and Back: Make the Robotic Rockets to Hunt for Life

Robotics Rockets Science
To Mars and Back: Make the Robotic Rockets to Hunt for Life


So you thought launching rockets on Earth was fun? NASA is again asking for help to write the rules for another Centennial Challenge, although this one is unlike anything NASA’s asked Makers to do before:

Design and build a rocket that can be robotically filled with rocks and dirt. Launch and fly the filled rocket at least 800 meters high, and then safely land it in one piece. This is a mission profile proposed for a Mars Sample Return Mission.

This artist’s concept of a proposed Mars sample return mission portrays the launch of an ascent vehicle filled with a cache of Martian rock samples. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

According to NASA’s Request for Information:

This Mars Ascent Vehicle Challenge would provide opportunities to evaluate a wide range of innovative methods to insert the sample, provide sample containment, erect the launch vehicle and deploy the sample container with limited human intervention and validate a reliable methodology.  This challenge especially seeks to engage the amateur robotics and rocketry communities to provide solutions. 

The Challenge would award prizes for successful demonstration of an end-to-end autonomous operation to sequentially accomplish the following tasks: picking up the sample, inserting the sample into a single stage rocket in a horizontal position, erecting the rocket, launching the rocket to an altitude not less than 800m (2624 feet), deploying a sample container with the cache internally sealed and landing the container at less than 6m/s terminal velocity.

The final Rules would be the official specification of the competition structure. A requirement is being considered that at least one person on each team be a certified Level 2 member of either Tripoli Rocketry Association or National Association of Rocketry.

James Dougherty, newly elected President of the Tripoli Central California, whose Intimidator V rocket first launched PhoneSat off the Black Rock Desert, is pleased with the parameters of this Challenge. “The 800 meter limit specified in the RFI will keep the opportunity open for model rocketry and high power/experimental rocketry alike,” he says.

Being There vs Bringing It Back

Why would we need to bring home Mars rocks when we’ve had such great success with our Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers? Although NASA has a rich history of miniaturizing electronics for space exploration — including Curiosity’s CheMin instrument, exhibited at the 2013 Maker Faire Bay Area — nothing quite beats having a rock sample sitting at your (very clean) lab bench.

Robots. Rockets. Hunting for life on Mars. Further proof that NASA is the coolest Agency in the Federal Government. Read the RFI posting at and tell Dr. Larry Cooper what you think about this proposed program by emailing him at; use MAV Challenge on the Subject line.

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I love exploring harsh geological features in the hunt for strange forms of life. On Earth, Mars, or the moon, the best way would obviously be by motorbike. 

View more articles by Matthew Reyes


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