Indian Team in the Inspiration Mars Student Design Contest Finalist

Team - The Indo-Martian Express (TIMEx)
Sri Venkateswara College of Engineering, Sriperembadur

           Finalist in Inspiration Mars Student Design Contest - 2014

It seems like Indian students are making it to the final round of most of the space related competitions in this year. This time it is TIMEx from Sri Venkateswara college of engineering, Sriperembadur. This team has made it to the final round of Inspirational Mars Student Design Contest - 2014. This is an international event conducted every year by Mars society. Also, this is one of toughest competition wherein the students have to use their technical, analytical and lateral thinking to solve the challenge. It requires the students to go beyond their course content to solve the various issues.

 In addition to TIMEX, there was one more team which made it to the semi-final and another team which received the honorable mention.

Our team member, Vasantha Kumar, had an opportunity to interact with Mr. Vishal from TIMEx team. We appreciate him for taking his time-off for this interview in their busy exam schedule. We hope that this will be a motivation for more students to participate in this event in the coming years. Please do check out their detailed proposal report to know the complexity involved in this challenge.


Q. What is your team name and the reason for choosing it? 

We somehow had an instinct that not many Indian teams would be taking part in the contest, and that it would be appropriate to bring in a national flavor to the team name instead of using the university name. The team name “The Indo-Martian Express TIMEx” is based on the problem statement itself which is a mission to Mars, and the word “Express” denotes a flyby around the planet.

 Q. Please tell us in brief about the competition.

The challenge was to design a two-person flyby mission to Mars in a simple, safe and a cheap manner which is to be launched in the year 2018. We were asked to prepare a report of the flyby mission taking into consideration all aspects involved. Also, there was a compulsion to provide a rough estimate of costs involved in the mission and also a developmental schedule leading to the 2018 launch.

Q. How did you come to know about the competition? Did anyone motivated your team to participate in such a difficult challenge?

I was the one who received an email in mid-August form a popular space website about the announcement of the competition. Initially, we were hesitant to give it a try considering the holistic problem statement which encompassed all mission aspects and our lack of prior experience. But once we set sight on the trajectory which is to be used, we got a bit more confident and this accelerated our progress. Because the trajectory was of a shorter duration and this could solve a lot of issues involved in the original proposed mission report. However, there are a couple of parameters which are risky but can be mitigated. To summarize, our choice of trajectory motivated all of us to go the distance as this would result in a unique mission proposal.

Q. Please give us some information about your team composition

 Mohit R Thakur              -                Re-entry.
SathyaSubramanian S     -                Programming.
Sundararajan Anand       -                Cost estimate and scheduling
Vijul L Shah                     -                Radiation shielding.
Vishal V                           -                Trajectory, Propulsion, Telecom, and Power Systems
Vishnu Kedhar S B          -                Spacecraft Modules, CAD modeling
Vishnu Ram Bharath S    -                Attitude Control Systems, Mission Infographic
Viswanathan S                -                Crew Factors.


All members belong to Sri Venkateswara College of Engineering, and the second and the last members belong to the Department of Computer Science & Engineering and Biotechnology Department respectively, while the rest of us belong to the Department of Mechanical engineering.


Q. Please give some information about the various tools for your proposal. 

 For trajectory, we decided to use the NASA Trajectory Browser which was basically a repository and could satisfy user-defined criteria and provide a heliocentric trajectory computed using Lambert’s two body solver, based on the constraints provided.

 For the propulsion part, we analyzed the capacity of launch vehicles like the SpaceX falcon Heavy and the NASA SLS Block 1. We even tried to enhance the payload capacity of the Falcon Heavy by modifying the upper stage characteristics, but in vain. The second stage fuel consumption was predicted using MS Excel Polynomial Scatter Plot and this helped us in opting for the SLS.

 From then on the spacecraft modules were chosen based on the requirement and on the specifications. The designs were done using ProE, whereas the additional material mass for radiation shielding was calculated manually.

 For the Re-entry we used MATLAB for choosing the best suited angle of the skip re-entry in order to reduce g-loads and also in estimating the drop in velocity after skipping off the atmosphere.

 Q. Any simulation or implementation was done to validate your proposal?

 We did simulate the re-entry part as discussed above, the right angle of entry which is the crew’s g-load toleration. 8 g will be a good value considering the bone loss and muscular wear experienced by the crew during the 431 day mission.

 For the telecom part, we were able to figure out the loss in decibels as a result of long distance relay and other lossess. We used a spreadsheet tool and gave inputs based on the current Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter telecom systems.

The radiation shielding material were analytically solved after limiting the dosage limit to 600  milli-Sieverts after assuming one of the spacecraft modules (Cygnus Enhanced) as a traditional aluminum can with corresponding areal density.

Spreadsheet (Excel) was used to eliminate Falcon Heavy vehicle for the mission citing payload carrying capacity and the Trans-mars Injection delta-v. The propellant tanks were sized to meet our requirement of performing the flyby maneuver of 1.79 km/s after consideration of boil-off factors.

 Q. Your report is pretty detailed with solution being proposed for both minor and major issues. Was there any help taken from other people beside your team? 

 We did not receive direct or continuous help /mentoring from scientists or professors.

 But we did contact a consultant in Astrodynamics based in the US, from whom we got valuable details regarding the Advanced Cryogenic Stage used in the mission which had a really high propellant mass fraction.

 I also had a chance to personally meet a scientist from NASA Ames research center at the annual IIT Madras Tech festival, who gave us more clarity regarding the nature of galactic radiations and microgravity effects.

 Regarding the choice of the material for radiation shielding, we emailed a professor from Georgia Tech, US since he had already conducted a NASA research project on the same. We received good technical papers from him which helped us zero in on the material ie Polythene.

 Q. What was the toughest part in the competition?

Accommodation of payload based on the launch vehicle performance was the single most difficult task. The payload mass was constantly growing after considering the contingencies and also the additional makeup gases of nitrogen and oxygen owing to cabin leakage, and also the heavy masses of crew exercise equipments. At one point, we almost decided to trash our single launch plan due to these increasing values and opt for a dual launch followed by an orbital rendezvous which tends to increase the complexity of the mission. But once we found a research paper online which predicted lesser delta-v for course correction and attitude control of a generalized flyby mission to Mars, the overall payload value was slashed by a good margin, and then the SLS payload capacity was finally met.

Q. Now, your team is in final round now. What is next in this competition? What is expected out of your team in the final round?

The final round is an oral presentation at a public event in NASA Ames Research Center, California. The event has been scheduled in early June after a postponement. We are expected to defend our design/proposal in front of a panel of judges from NASA, Mars Society as well as the Inspiration Mars team. The winner get $10,000 as cash and an all expenses paid trip to the Mars Convention-2014 in August.

Q. Could you please list some of the important resources/books/papers referred for your proposal ?

The references cited in the mission report are an exhaustive list where students can actually pick up any mission aspect and study them more. Some of the useful books, websites and papers are:

  • Fundamentals of Astrodynamics, (Bate, Mueller, White)
  • Mission Design Center Trajectory Browser, NASA Ames Research Center.
  • Helpful in obtaining launch vehicle specifications
  • Zegler, Frank; Bernard Kutter (2010-09-02). "Evolving to a Depot-Based Space  Transportation Architecture". AIAA SPACE 2010 Conference & Exposition. AIAA.
  • Exhaustive source of spacecraft dimensions and mission details
  • Cucinotta, Francis A., Myung-Hee Y. Kim, and Lori J. Chappell. "Evaluating Shielding  Approaches to Reduce Space Radiation Cancer Risks." (2012).
  • Anthony Hanford, NASA CR-2006-213693 Exploration Life Support Baseline  Values and Assumptions Document. (Used in estimating the ECLSS aspect)
  • Useful website containing fundamentals of space technology
  • Useful for Downlink Telecom Budget
  • Useful in estimating costs of a mission sub-system based on difficulty and technology readiness.
  • A good spreadsheet tool to estimate the cost of using the Deep Space Network for tracking and maneuvering.

 Q. Any suggestion for other students considering to participate in similar events in the coming days? 

The main motive of participation in such a multi-national competition should be learning and not winning. At the end of the day, the amount of knowledge you have gained will matter more than anything. A chance to participate in a difficult challenge comes once in a while and it is important to grab the opportunity with both hands and give it your best shot, rather than thinking about the outcome of the challenge.
We were hesitant to proceed in the competition midway considering the participation of some top ranked universities across the globe, but our decision to at least give it our best try paid off in the end, which was actually shockingly surprising.


The reader could know more about the teams and also about the competition at this link.





0 #1 M.Gnana sekaran 2014-05-21 12:25
Congrats! This is really a great thing to be proud about you all students. Certainly all of you would reach higher altitude because of your attitude. Wish you all the very best.
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