Of all the nations who might get to Mars first, Austria doesn’t loom large. Yet the Austrian Space Forum (OEWF) has sent a manned mission to the Red Planet – or at least, to an Earth-bound version of “Mars” located in the northern Sahara near Erfoud, Morocco. During February OEWF conducted a series of experiments and simulation tests with the aim of gaining a better understanding of how to execute a manned mars mission and develop technology for making it a reality.
One of the largest simulated missions ever conducted by Europe, Mars2013 used the internet to both simulate and find solutions to the problems of interplanetary communications and monitoring with a broadband satellite link used to connect Erfoud with the Mission Support Center in Austria. Erfoud was chosen because its geology and topography is similar to Mars and there are a variety of paleo-microbiological signatures akin to what may be found on the Red Planet.
The simulated Mars mission involved more than having volunteers indulge in a bout of outer space pretending. Its purpose was to study how various technologies could work together in a simulated Martian setting – especially how astronauts can operate in spacesuits at the end of long-distance communication lines. In addition, the tests included engineering, planetary surface operations, astrobiology, geophysics, geology, life sciences and other fields.
The most visible part of the simulation is the Aouda.X spacesuit. Of course, it isn't a real spacesuit. A suit practical for walking on Mars would cost a fortune, be as complicated a difficult to use as a mixed-gas deep-sea diving suit and be far too heavy to stand up in on Earth. Instead, the 45-kilogram (99 lb) Aouda.X is more of a spacesuit simulator that provides the wearer with the feel of a proper spacesuit as well as presenting the same limitations of movement and dexterity.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Aouda.X is a bit of fancy dress. There’s a hard upper torso and the outer shell is made of Panox/Kevlar tissue with aluminum coating and there’s an adjustable exoskeleton to simulate pressure on all the major joints and the fingers. In addition, there’s a Head-Up Display (HUD), medical and engineering telemetry, an advanced human-machine interface, speech recognition software and (fortunately for working in Morocco) full air circulation with carbon dioxide control that allows it to be used from 35⁰ C (95⁰ F) to -100⁰ C (-148⁰ F).
During Mars2013, the Aouda.X was put through its paces as researchers sought weaknesses in the suit design and studied how long it took to perform tasks while suited up, with a particular emphasis on how well the astronaut could operate small devices with gauntlets on.
For “emergencies” a mockup of a deployable shelter was tested. Developed by students at the Vienna University of Technology, the idea was that the compact shelter could be quickly erected and provide an astronaut with suit trouble up to 48 hours of protection.
The spacesuits pay a central role in developing regimes for detecting life on Mars, if only because they are a major threat of sample contamination. The Mars Space.Microsphere and Endospore viability assay (microEVA) developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab was designed to assess the potential for contamination of samples taken from an ice cave by astronauts with a particular emphasis on how to control bacterial spores that might have been carried from Earth.
Another major area was the assessment of the physiological effects of isolation and confined spaces on the earthbound astronauts.
Participants were hooked up with a long-term medical monitoring system (LTSM) developed by the Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique SA (CSEM SA), Switzerland that uses smartphone technology and WiFi to collect and send back to the Mission Support Center information on heart rate, breath rate, body temperature and activity among others. In addition to the data itself, the life science monitoring was also used to compare data sent by satellite to standardized medical tests.
Robotic explorers have played a major role in exploring Mars and OEWF sees them having just as large a role when people bridge the gulf between the two worlds.
A good example of this is the Cliff Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV), also called the Cliffbot. Artist’s depictions of future Mars exploration often show an astronaut abseiling down a Martian cliff. The Cliffbot is a more realistic approach than a man in a pressure suit dangling off a rock face. Instead, the Cliffbot is designed to lower itself down a slope on a cable.
Another rover that was tested at Mars2013 was the Magma White rover. Built by ABM Space Education, Poland, it uses a laser life-detection system, a high-resolution panoramic imaging system and an autonomous ground penetrator as well as serving as a testing device for human-robot interaction study.
Then there’s “Puli” – an unmanned, semi-autonomous rover with four “whegs” (wheel+leg) to move it about. Bringing up the rear are the immobile explorers Hunveyor- and MEDIAN the former is a student-built stationary probe for environmental monitoring and the latter is a “nano lander” designed to seek out methane on Mars.
Command, control and communications was another major area of study with tests aimed at ways to incorporate technologies developed for the internet and mobile phones into Mars exploration. The purpose isn't just to maintain a link with mission control, but also to use the new technology to better manage multiple data and communication links between astronauts, machines and base.
This also includes emergency communications and to this end, an “Antipodes” test was conducted on how to handle a loss of communications with Earth. The simulated breakdown involving hooking up the Moroccan Mars base with the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) on the other side of “Mars” in Utah to aid the landing party.
Mars2013 was the result of a collaboration experts from 23 nations including such agencies as University College London, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Budapest.
The findings of Mars2013 will be presented at a workshop in May.
The video below outlines the program.
See the stories that matter in your inbox every morning