Is there life on Mars? Leave it to R3’s Mars rover to find out

The red planet has cultivated a mythology over centuries: does life exist on Mars or could life exist on Mars are questions that have plagued scholars and scientists since its discovery centuries ago. This continues to drive astrophysicists, biologists, engineers and mathematicians to pursue a goal of becoming the first human being to step on the red iron oxide-based soil.

A team at Ryerson University is chasing that elusive Mars dream with the hope that one day their work in the basement of Kerr Hall North will translate into new discoveries on the red planet. The Ryerson Rams Robotics (R3) collective is in the middle of building a rover designed to detect life on Mars as part of the University Rover Challenge (URC) held in Hanksville, Utah from May 31 to June 2 of 2018.  

“…regardless of whether there is life there or not, this research can help determine the origins of humanity.”

For Michel Kiflen, a fourth-year biomedical science major and the team’s science lead, the rationale behind this project is rooted in the history of science itself.

“Biology was formalized when Charles Darwin wrote the theory of natural selection. It used to be that we thought life was spontaneous, that you would see a piece of rotten meat on the table and spontaneously maggots would appear, but we know that’s not true anymore,” he says.  

“This led to a profound question: where did life originate from? Mars is the one place that is so close to Earth that could possibly harbour life. It’s amazing, and regardless of whether there is life there or not, this research can help determine the origins of humanity. It’s fascinating.”

R3 is trying to improve on their 2017 result at the international competition, where they finished 21st overall and fourth out of all Canadian schools. Last year the team had to improvise in order to ensure it adhered to competition standards.

“During the science task it turned out [the rover] was overweight,” explains Omar Shariff, who helps lead the design on the rover’s robotic arm.

The team decided to remove the middle two wheels of the six-wheeled rover to reduce its weight.

“And it worked out, we ended up finishing 11th in the world in the science category,” he says.

Comprised of nearly 35 members, R3 is split into four highly specialized sub-teams ranging from controls, science, the robotic arm and drive (the chassis of the vehicle), as well as administrative and communications support. The parts are then assembled into the final competition-ready rover.

“Everyone who works on something has something to look forward to when they see the finished product and all your hard work is on display.”

While the prospect of building an interstellar rover may prove daunting to some, the group points out that the team is open to members of different fields of study.

“Joining the team is about your willingness to learn and your commitment to putting in the time,” says Mai Hameed, a second-year computer engineering student who is part of the controls team. “We dedicate a lot of time to teaching and we don’t really have a steep learning curve. We put you on a team depending on what you’re comfortable with, so really anyone from any field can join.”

Hameed is one of 10 women in R3 and is actively trying to recruit more women to the team.

“There is a traditional lack of women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and there are various factors that hold women back from joining STEM fields,” she says.

“I think the biggest problem is a lot of women are intimidated to join a team like this because they view it as a boys’ club. I can attest to that. Years ago I had a fear of joining because I felt that I wasn’t good enough, but speaking on behalf of myself and other women on the team, this team is extremely open and welcoming and I encourage all women to join and put themselves out there because it is very beneficial to join a team like this.”

Former team members of R3 have earned placements within the automotive and engineering industries, but according to many on the team the most rewarding experiences occur on the journey to seeing their rover compete.  

“Throughout the whole design process you encounter problems, find errors and have to redesign things, sometimes things break and if you don’t have a spare part you have to improvise,” says Shariff. “It’s tough and part of the process, but everyone who works on something has something to look forward to when they see the finished product and all your hard work is on display. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

All images by Scott McLean.