UCL to MARS

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

In 2017, we had the pleasure of working with Elke Mergny and Crew 178 from UCL to MARS program in their experimental stay at the research station in Utah. A recent article in National Geographic reminded us of that project and we asked Elke if she would write us a description of her time there. She graciously provided us with the following account.


The Red Planet

Mars has long held a special interest for explorers and scientists. The Red Planet keeps many scientific mysteries and its similarities with Earth make it, for some, an occasion for understanding the origin of life and solar system and, for others, an opportunity for the future of humankind. For decades, research projects have multiplied in several fields. "UCL to Mars" is a student project that sends master and PhD students in sciences and applied sciences from the University of Louvain (UCL) to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) to simulate life on Mars. During the month of April 2017, “Crew 178” stayed in the station for two weeks. The team was composed of 5 Master students and 2 PhD students, from the fields of engineering, biology, chemistry, physics and health sciences. The crew had several technological and scientific objectives. One of them was the study of the geology around the station using ground penetrating radar (GPR).

The MDRS which hosts the student crew was built in 2001 in the desert of Utah and is active eight months a year. It offers a scientific infrastructure having Mars-like set of constraints: confined space, expeditions in space suits, no contact with the outside and freeze-dried food. The station consists of three buildings: a greenhouse to develop agriculture and fish farming, a laboratory that allows scientific work (e. g. chemistry experiment) and a habitat including rooms and common areas. This station is part of the Mars Analog Research Station project (MARS). This project consists of two main "prototypes" of Martian housing for scientific research: one in Arctic (FMARS) and one in Utah (MDRS). The crews are usually composed of scientists and students. In addition to their own experience, each crew member has a specific role within the crew: commander, crew biologist, crew engineer, crew geologist, crew scientist, crew astronomer, health and safety officer, greenhouse manager and journalist. The crews take shifts every 2-3 weeks and lead various experiments in several fields: geology, biology, robotics, engineering, etc. So, the simulation aims to evaluate the best way to explore Mars.

The Utah desert around MDRS is in a semi-arid Badlands area with an average annual temperature of 12°C. It is subjected to wind erosion but mainly was shaped by fluvial erosion. The geological layers are horizontal and comprises Mancos shale, Dakota Formation, Morrison Formation and Summerville Formation. The area is Mars-like because of its red color, barren surface and especially, geomorphology and processes that are analog to Mars.

Geological prospection has been already done by previous crews from the University of Louvain. In 2014, “Crew 136” collected samples of minerals and used UV light to detect evaporite minerals. Geophysical prospection was chosen by “Crew 178” to obtain a general mapping of geological layers and locate underground water if possible. The data were measured with ground penetrating radar. GSSI SIR 4000 and a 100Mhz antenna was used. Three main surveys were done in fields around the MDRS: a field of 500 m² (0518500 4255500), one of 15000 m² (0518500 4251500) and one of 10000 m² (0519938 4247631).

Living In Martian Conditions

Living in Martian conditions implies constraints that must be considered carefully. First, the choice of the sampling zone that depends on exterior factors: Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA, the usual name for “Martian outgoings”) cannot go beyond 3 hours a day, limiting the areas that can be investigated. Even if the electrical rovers can be used to reach farther places, rough terrains are often an obstacle. Moreover, several experiments must be lead and the sites must be convenient for each crew member that goes out. In this mission, the requirements of the experiment with GRP had to be compatible with a geological survey by X-Ray Diffraction, mapping with drones and installation of telecommunication relays. Another limitation is that, in two weeks, the number of EVAs is limited, and they are only allowed by the Mars Society under strict conditions. In case of a mistake in the field, rectifications are nearly impossible. It was especially the case for this stay because the installation of telecommunication relays imposed to change the site every EVA.

Then, because a technical support must be ensured by minimum two people in the station, the number of members that can go out is restricted. It involves that one experiment must often be performed by one or two crew members. Generally, even if there is a strong team spirit, a crew member must manage on his own. Finally, the main difficulty is the space suit which comprises the suit, gloves, helmet and oxygen supply. The complete set weighs 11 lbs which is far from a real space suit (about 275 lbs). Hopefully, the gravity on Mars is three times less than on Earth. A half an hour is necessary to get dressed. Before going out, 10 minutes of decompression time is required in the airlock (it will certainly be more in a real mission). This time of preparation and the waiting in the airlock is mentally exhausting but each crew member must be focused on the mission. Forgetting equipment is not tolerated and a return trip to the station is forbidden. The helmet is very constraining and limits the field of vision which was especially a problem for reading the screen of the SIR 4000. This problem was fixed with straps that allow a better orientation of the screen. Also, gloves are problematic because accurate movement is impossible. Fortunately, the button of the SIR 4000 was very convenient. A touchscreen would have been a very bad choice. The suits were designed to protect a crew member from the cold (-60°C outside) and solar radiations. However, what it was done to protect us eventually seemed to turn against us. When the temperature was higher than 20°C (This was often the case in April), the space suit was like an oven. Pulling the antenna was thus exhausting.

These experiments lead to daily reports sent to the Mars Society's Capsule Communication (CapCom) and post-mission reports run by the Mars Society and some space agencies, as this research program is supported by NASA.

At the time of this writing, the processed gpr data collected during the MARS stay was unavailable.