Matt Dentlinger, who grew up in Arcadia, is part of a student team at South Dakota State University (SDSU) that has received funding for a project aimed to assist future space explorers.
In December, NASA selected the SDSU team to be one of 12 national semifinalists for the fifth-annual Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge.
Dentlinger is a 2017 Carroll Kuemper graduate and is one of four members on the SDSU team, which is part of a senior design class in the school’s engineering program.
SDSU was the only school in the Midwest to be chosen.
MIT, Auburn, California Polytechnic State University, Texas A&M and the University of Pittsburgh were some of the other schools selected for the competition.
The SDSU class is advised by Todd Letcher, an associate professor in mechanical engineering at the school.
“At the beginning of the year everyone who is in senior design is given a bunch of options of different projects that are available to us,” Dentlinger said.
Some of the potential projects are for private companies and some are for government entities such as NASA.
Dentlinger’s group chose the NASA competition as their project.
“For NASA and people going to space, a goal in the future is to create permanently inhabited bases on the moon and then maybe Mars,” he said.
“The one big thing they would need is water.”
The water would be used for drinking by future inhabitants of another planet – and could also be used as rocket fuel by breaking it down into hydrogen and oxygen.
“The competition is about finding ways to extract water that is frozen under the surface,” Dentlinger said. “NASA believes there is ice under the surface of Mars, so the competition is to create a device that can drill through rock or whatever surface is above this ice.
“We have to create a drill or something that drills through and then is able to extract the ice,” Dentlinger said. “The most common way to do that is melting it and then pumping it back up to above the surface and then you’re able to use it from there.”
For the technology demonstration, the NASA rules require that their device must be capable of drilling through simulated lunar or Martian soil, two feet of rocks, soil and concrete, to frozen tubs of water; as much ice as possible must be melted and pumped out in 12 hours.
NASA provided a set of rules and goals for the project; from those guidelines, the SDSU team wrote and submitted the proposal that was selected to be in the competition.
“For our proposal, the majority of it we engineered via software,” Dentlinger said. “We 3D modeled it.”
The team’s design uses a rotary hammer-type drill with a special bit.
“Once we’ve drilled all the way down, we can remove the inside of the bit and then in the hollow interior of the bit we lower a heating cartridge,” he said.
The heating cartridge, which will be 3D printed, has small holes through which the water can be drawn out.
“We lower that down and heat the ice so it melts and then pump it out,” he said.
The SDSU design is called “JAMMER,” for Jackrabbit Automated Moon to Mars Extractor and prospectoR.
“It was pretty exciting when they chose us as a semifinalist,” Dentlinger said.
The team received $5,000 from NASA to refine and build their design.
“This semester will be devoted to ordering parts and assembling what we proposed,” Dentlinger said. “In March there is a mid-project review where we show them the progress we’ve made, and they decide who they should narrow down the finalists to.”
The group of 12 competitors will be reduced to 10 at that time.
The 10 finalists will receive an additional $5,000 to refine and test their systems.
The final competition and technology demonstration will be conducted at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, in June.
Dentlinger said he always liked math and science when he was growing up.
“Getting a problem and being able to solve it is pretty rewarding, I’ve found,” he said.
He chose SDSU because of the school’s engineering program – and because he was recruited to play basketball there.
“I wanted to play basketball and they have a pretty good engineering program, so it was a best fit,” Dentlinger said.
He hasn’t yet decided where he wants to end up with his engineering degree. Even though he is a senior, he doesn’t have to decide right away.
“I’m actually going to be here another two years after this year because of basketball,” he said.
He was a redshirt freshman – and players were also granted another year of eligibility because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It would be awesome to work for NASA or something along those lines, but it’s not something I’m really set on,” Dentlinger said. “I’ve enjoyed my time here at SDSU learning more about it.”