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Around Mars in Eighty Days: the Mars City Design challenge winning project

Seven students from l'X have just won the Mars City Design challenge 2017 in Los Angeles. Students imagined a balloon flight on the red planet in order to develop tourism on Mars. Their project even resulted in a partnership between l'X and the organizers of the competition.

"Imagine that a colony has just settled on Mars. The colonists remember their life on Earth and all the possibilities that were offered to them. Let us improve their living conditions so that in the future they feel at home on the red planet". Here is the hypothesis and the challenge launched last January by the organizers of the Mars City design challenge allowing participants to develop innovative technological solutions that will feed the "first city" on Mars. The competition brings together scientists, engineers, astronauts and architects. This year, the jury included experts from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dassault Systèmes and the European Space Agency (ESA).

To meet this challenge, seven students* of École Polytechnique decided to promote Martian tourism. They imagined a balloon flight that would allow travel on the planet. For their project called "Around Mars in Eighty Days", the students were first inspired by land balloons. However, the raw Martian soil, the lack of oxygen in the Martian atmosphere and the very low density of the air forced them to rethink all the components of a balloon to adapt it to the conditions of the planet. Thus, the students realized the design and modeled a balloon capable of carrying two passengers and a pilot for an expedition.

A completely reinvented balloon adapted to the Martian atmosphere

The object rises in the sky thanks to dihydrogen, not inflammable on Mars. In addition, "As a system consisting of a single balloon requires a too large envelope, we decided instead to superimpose two balloons of lesser rays. This reduced the risk of contact of the envelope with the ground in case of a strong wind," said Zoé Ghiron, an Ingénieur Polytechnicien student, X 2015. The students also developed new take-off and landing processes to ensure passenger and structure safety in unprecedented Martian conditions, since takeoff and landing on Earth are too violent to be reproduced on Mars. For this, they designed a system based on an "anchor" to stabilize the balloon at altitude, and a rover to catch the anchor and stop the ball.

A partnership between Mars City Design and École Polytechnique

135 projects participated in the challenge. École Polytechnique's team was selected among the ten finalists and then won the 1st prize in the "transport" category on October 12, 2017. Beyond this distinction, and thanks to the participants' effort, the Think Tank Mars City Design has decided to enter into a partnership with École Polytechnique as part of a Martian balloon project for the collection of samples on the red planet. Mars City Design even plans to present this project to a NASA scholarship from January 2018. A group of X2016 class students has taken over and is currently working on the results produced by the winning team in order to advance on the concept.

Thanks to their futuristic idea, École Polytechnique students will have given a new impetus to Martian balloons, subject of recurring study of the world agencies which design difficulties hitherto limited concrete realization.

*The team consisted of Zoé Ghiron, Selma Elbez, Antoine Grison, Laure Heidmann, Sarah Kassimi, Yves Sibony, Ziane Rayan