Publications: Science Omega Review Europe Issue 2

Morocco today, Mars tomorrow? Austria prepares for red planet

Although Austria is a member of the European Space Agency, it would be a great feat to create a national space agency also allowing for research into long-term programmes like a human Mars mission.
Dr Gernot Grömer
Austrian Space Forum President Dr Gernot Grömer discusses the simulation of a human expedition to Mars, and what a trip to the red planet could teach us about our own…

The landscape is breathtaking: sand dunes and rock formations as far as a human can see. Two spacesuits, four robotic vehicles and a set of 17 hi-tech research experiments, supported by a Mission Support Center in a project involving more than 100 scientists, engineers, flight planners and medical doctors. It is not Mars yet, but almost: in February 2013, in the Northern Sahara in Morocco, the Austrian Space Forum (OEWF) conducted an extraordinary field mission, testing equipment and conducting scientific experiments similar to those that might be expected to take place on the red planet a few decades from now.

MARS2013: preparing for an extraordinary journey

The Austrian Space Forum has developed two simulation spacesuits, testing them in conditions ranging from -110°C cryochamber tests in Austria, to the Rio Tinto field mission in southern Spain in 2011, to subsurface cave exploration simulations in Germany and Austria. The long-term goal of this ‘PolAres’ programme is a long-duration Arctic mission – in order to gain operational experience for future human voyages to the red planet to study the possibility of extinct or extant life on Mars.

With substantial support from the Moroccan government, the OEWF and its African partner, the Ibn Battuta Center for exploration and field activity, together with research entities from 23 nations, developed a strong scientific programme. In a global call for team members, 95 candidates for the field crew and the Mission Support Center were chosen. Finally, an international crew of 10 people started their training, including six recently certified analog astronauts.

Finally, after 18 months of preparation, in January 2013 a bridgehead team led a convoy of trucks escorted by the Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie through the Northern Sahara, deploying five tons of delicate hardware at the base camp. This station was named ‘Camp Weyprecht’ in honour of the Austro-Hungarian Arctic expedition of Carl Weyprecht and Julius von Payer in 1872. Thanks to the support of the Moroccan government, within a perimeter of 5km, the area was closed to the public through checkpoints, guard patrols and helicopters.

The fully fledged Mission Support Center in Innsbruck, Austria, supported by teams for science, flight planning and media activities, also operated as the control hub for external control centres including mission control units in New Zealand, Hungary and Poland.

The expedition phase

The ‘Mars Crew’ started its work on another world on 11th February 2013 at 10:00, when a 10 minute time delay was introduced to emulate the signal travel time between Earth and Mars: the experiments were in the fields of space robotics, human factors, exploration astrobiology and technology demonstrations.

For instance, the Polish Magma White rover, controlled from Warsaw, Poland, was carrying a University of Innsbruck-built laser system detecting molecular biosignatures through fluorescence. A French-built cliff reconnaissance vehicle explored steep rock chasms and caves. Only when the in situ data was promising enough would the human explorers be dispatched to conduct follow-up analyses. These were carried out through an experiment of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a manner that would minimise the risk of contaminating the ‘Martian’ rock samples. These experiments – led in a highly interdisciplinary and international environment – allow for field testing of human-robotic partnerships. We are long beyond the old debate of whether to send humans to Mars or robots: they both have their distinct advantages and tremendously increase the scientific output if managed through a clever exploration strategy.

Another example of the work conducted in Morocco was the field deployment of the two spacesuits. The experimental spacesuit-simulators ‘Aouda.X’ and ‘Aouda.S’ act as both a spacecraft and a computer to wear: they mimic border conditions a real Mars spacesuit would provide during a surface EVA, such as weight, pressure, limited sensory input etc. The 45kg suits have advanced on-board computing, internal sensor networks and computing power, biomedical telemetry and an advanced human-machine-interface including gesture control and voice command. It takes about three hours for a four-person team to don them in the field.

The suits are designed to study contamination vectors in planetary exploration analog environments and create limitations depending on the pressure regime chosen for a simulation. An advanced human-machine interface, a set of sensors and purpose-designed software act as a local virtual assistant to the crewman. They are designed to interact with other field components like the rover and its instruments.

Working in the desert with such experimental hardware was an incredible experience for the field crew, despite Saharan dust storms, temperature variations between -2°C and +32°C and a high workload. A highly dedicated team at the Mission Support Center and the downstream rover control teams allowed for a near-real time data analysis that was then translated into the details of the flight planning to maximise the scientific output of the mission.

Roaming Mars: the impact of Mars analog research

MARS2013 also had an emphasis on public outreach and education: groups from Moroccan universities visited Camp Weyprecht in Morocco during the ministerial visit, while students also participated in the preparatory and isolation phase. A dedicated media team focused on the classical press activities as well as social media. Highlights of these activities included a one-article-per-day from well-known German authors commenting on the MARS2013 project, a collaboration with ‘The Globe at Night’ and a Google Hangout with a Scandinavian Aurora Tweetup-Expedition. Also locally, the Mission Support Center team engaged in various outreach activities, e.g. interacting with pupils and high school students during an event near Innsbruck.

Although Austria is a member of the European Space Agency, it would be a great feat to create a national space agency also allowing for research into long-term programmes like a human Mars mission. Until then, the challenge of getting humans to Mars rests upon the academic institutions or pioneering space industries.

Missions like the MARS2013 expedition, the work at Mars analog stations such as The Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah or the Canadian Arctic, the NEEMO underwater station at the Florida Keys and other projects are highly visible symbols of a monumental journey yet to come – a human voyage to another planet. Whatever the technical details might look like, whatever nations decide to go first, these journeys will step in the footprints of today’s Mars analog missions. And they will help us to expand on that very gift spaceflight has offered to us since Yuri Gagarin’s first flight: the ability to get a new view on our own home world.

Dr Gernot Grömer
Austrian Space Forum


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