HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – Students from the University of Alabama in Huntsville placed in the top 10 in the Mars Society’s University Rover Challenge.

The 21-member UAH Space Hardware Club team competed in the URC finals on Jun. 1-4 in the deserts of Southern Utah. The mostly-freshman team competed against much larger teams, scoring 286.37 points. That score was third-best among U.S. teams and sixth-best in the world.

In a scene that looks extraterrestrial, the ASTRA rover maneuvers at the University Rover Competition. (Photo courtesy Peter Bowers / Space Hardware Club)
In a scene that looks extraterrestrial, the ASTRA rover maneuvers at the University Rover Competition. (Photo courtesy Peter Bowers / Space Hardware Club)

This was the first trip to the URC finals for the SHC and a lot of work went into preparing the rover for the competition. The entire rover has to fit into a cube-shaped space that measures 1.2 meters on each side (nearly 64 cubic feet) but can get bigger once deployed on the field. SHC’s Adaptable Service Transport Research Apparatus (ASTRA) comes in at 1.19 meters (roughly 3.9 feet) long, 0.9 meters (roughly three feet wide), and 1.19 meters (roughly 3.9 feet) tall when stowed.

But that relatively small size packs a lot of hardware – the rover weighs 46.9 kilograms (103.4 pounds). Hardware onboard includes a robotic arm equipped with cameras, a microscope, and the hardware/chemicals needed to conduct tests to detect life.

The URC, a project of The Mars Society, serves as the premier robotics competition for college students worldwide, challenging them to design and build the next generation of Mars rovers that will one day explore the red plant alongside humans.

Team Lead Shelby Tull, who graduated in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, said the completion was a thrill, but it did have its challenges for the team.

We finally got to put our rover – and years of hard work and dedication, blood, sweat and tears – to the ultimate test, and it stood up to the challenge!” Tull says. “We placed among the veteran teams who we’ve looked up to as examples of what we wanted to accomplish, and this was just our first year.

Shelby Tull

Specifically, those challenges crept up during some of the missions, and they had to improvise when the rover couldn’t be fixed mid-mission, just like the famous “square peg in a round hole” solution for filtering carbon dioxide aboard Apollo 13.

During the autonomous navigation mission, one of our mission critical sensors completely failed. Our software lead, Areeb Mohammed, had to reprogram the rover’s navigation software during the already limited mission time in order to make the rover functional again. This is analogous to the real world. You might have a spacecraft that has a failure, and you have to troubleshoot it completely remotely from Earth.

Shelby Tull

Chief engineer Andrew Adams, a senior in mechanical engineering, has been elected team lead for the coming year, and he said while the team has already learned a few things for next year’s University Rover Challenge, there’s a big lesson they all learned: “be adaptable and persevere through adversity.”

For a more detailed look at the rover and all the hardware, click here.