Analog astronauts test water-hunting radar for future Mars missions
Scientists from the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica's (INAF) Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali and the University of Perugia have developed a towable radar designed to look for water on Mars. Resembling a tiny toy sled on a stick, the ScanMars ground penetrating radar was tested in the Mars-like terrain in the Dhofar region of Oman by a team of analog astronauts during the February 2018 AMADEE-18 analog mission.
Finding a huge lake of water buried beneath 1.5 km (0.9 mi) of ice from orbit is one thing, but finding smaller amounts at a depth that can easily be reached by a team on the planet's surface is another. This complicated by the fact that once manned exploration begins, the hunt for water will very likely be conducted not by a trained team of professional geologists, but by generalist astronauts having to do the survey work in bulky spacesuits.
To study this problem, the INAF team tested a compact subsurface radar system specially made for seeking water on Mars at AMADEE-18, which was a four-week simulated Mars mission conducted by analog astronauts.
Though they may look like a very silly exercise in adult cosplay, analogs have a very serious purpose. A real Mars suit would cost US$10 million dollars each, and under Earth gravity and other conditions would hardly be practical, so the analog astronauts use cheaper, simplified suits to practice the kind of tasks that future explorers will need to carry out on Mars. The idea, therefore, is to wear suits that are an analog or approximation of what it would be like to work in a real suit on the Red Planet.
This is important when it comes to ScanMars, which is a specialized type of ground penetrating radar. Such towable radars have been used on Earth for decades by geologists, archaeologists, surveyors, and civil engineers to map out underground structures and their composition, but that requires skilled operators. Training the non-expert analog astronauts was thus a key objective of the project during AMADEE-18.
To use ScanMars, the analog astronauts were trained at the Austrian Space Forum facilities in Innsbruck before going to Dhofar, where they covered four distinct geological areas with a total of 70,000 radar readings to a depth of five meters (16 ft). During the scans, the team found a dry riverbed, among other features.
"The innovative element of ScanMars with respect to common radar fieldwork is that the data was acquired by the analog astronauts and not the scientists," says Alessandro Frigeri of INAF. "This means that the astronauts' training has become a key part of the experiment.
"The data quality is very good and, even if we are not yet able to distinguish unambiguously the presence of water, we can find alluvial structures that could guide future astronauts to dig where they are most likely to find water," adds Frigeri. "In view of the recent discovery of liquid water beneath the surface of Mars, it's very timely to look ahead to the development of techniques that future explorers could use to analyze the Martian subsurface."
The results will be presented at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2018 in Berlin.
Source: Europlanet Society