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Month-long Moroccan Mars simulation is hailed 'a success'

23 March 2013

Spacesuits, emergency shelters and waltzing rovers - the Austrian Space Forum's month-long MARS2013 simulation concludes successfully.

Hungarian Google Lunar X-Prize Rover Puli together with Aouda.X Mars spacesuit (photo: OeWF/Katja Zanella-Kux)

A month-long simulation of a Mars expedition, which included field tests of two experimental spacesuits, an astronaut injury scenario, tests of autonomous rovers and a cliff-climbing robot, has concluded successfully. The Austrian Space Forum, which concluded its Mars simulation project in the Moroccan desert on February 28, says that the mission even surpassed its ambitious objectives.
 
"MARS2013 was challenging, complex and demanding but also an exciting and scientifically successful undertaking," explains Dr Gernot Grömer, who led the expedition at Camp Weyprecht, south of Erfoud in Morocco.
 
MARS2013 was the largest Mars simulation to date under the leadership of a European organisation. The ten-member strong core expedition team conducted 17 scientific experiments during the four-week long mission. Some 23 nations and more than 100 scientists participated in MARS2013 and contributed to the success of the simulation.
 
"All scheduled experiments were executed as planned even though it was a great challenge," Grömer adds. "It was astonishing to see – a global orchestra working simultaneously on a number of experiments! 'Analogue' astronauts wearing the experimental spacesuits Aouda.X and Aouda.S were guided by our Mission Support Centre [MSC] in Innsbruck and our partner organisation Kiwispace in Wellington, New Zealand – all with a ten-minute communication delay. At the same time, mission control centres in Warsaw and Budapest commanded the robotic rovers MAGMA and Puli via satellite connection."
 
Alexander Soucek, Flight Director at the MSC in Innsbruck, is also very satisfied with the mission: "Everything went as planned. As all activities had been scheduled in minute detail in advance, we were able to complete more than 95 percent of our plan."
 
In homage to MARS2013’s spirit of exploration, the two simulation camps were named after Carl Weyprecht and Julius Payer, two scientists who led a successful Austrian-Hungarian expedition to the North Pole from 1872 to 1874.

Upon arrival in Morocco, the mission’s basecamp was established and named Camp Weyprecht. Two weeks later a small team carried out another highlight of the simulation: a three-day excursion to a second location. A four-person team established a secondary ‘landing site’, Camp Payer, 50 km south of Camp Weyprecht.

The team took geological samples at different locations near the site, collecting dozens of bags of mineral samples for later analysis. The activity provided a challenging test of the logistics and communication that would be required for an analogous activity on Mars.
 
Analogue astronaut, Luca Foresta says, "Out there, as part of a small group dispatched at distance from Camp Weyprecht, I could really imagine being on the red planet. The collection and description of samples lasted the whole day, while I slowly made my way into a small valley as suggested by the Remote Science Support group at the Mission Support Center in Innsbruck. It was quite exhausting as the ground was highly uneven and rich with rocks of considerable size, but absolutely satisfying! In two words, absolutely fantastic!"
 
One of the biggest challenges during the simulation was communication. The camp and the analogue astronauts on 'Mars' had to posses a high degree of autonomy – and patience.  Every message or question included the ten-minute delay that a real communication from Mars would take to arrive at 'Earth', resulting in a 20-minute turnaround time for a response from Mission Control. An important part of the mission, therefore, was the analysis of procedures for an emergency on Mars.
 
On February 21, the team took part in a simulation scenario of the analogue astronauts experiencing an accident resulting in injury. The astronauts communicated the emergency to Mission Support and subsequently deployed an emergency tent developed by the Technical University Vienna. The Deployable Shelter is stowed in a backpack-sized case and, in the event that a single or a small group of astronauts are caught in a dangerous situation away from their base, can provide protection from the elements until help arrives.
 
The field test of the Deployable Shelter was successful. By the time the delayed response came from the Mission Support Centre in Innsbruck (Earth), the analogue astronauts were safely inside the shelter and rescue from the Weyprecht camp was on its way.
 
The experimental spacesuits, Aouda.X. and Aouda.S, performed as planned through a challenging test program. The analogue astronauts spent up to six hours per day carrying out scientific experiments in the field, including tests of different aspects of operating within the suits, such as the agility of the astronaut when walking over rough terrain or the dexterity of hands and fingers working with a small technical device.

A doctor monitored the temperature and CO2 concentration inside the suit, as well as biomedical data like heart rate in order to insure the safety of the analogue astronauts.  In true Mars style, they even had some experience of dust and sand-storms.
 
Grömer says, "Aouda.X. and Aouda.S performed exceptionally well, but the wind and sand of the Moroccan desert are a serious challenge for any type of equipment. The sand acted like abrasive paper and posed added stress on the suits. It also entered the suit through the air filter and affected the ventilation. The weight of the experimental suits at 45kg also represented an increased physical strain for the analogue astronauts, which was handled increasingly well as the mission continued."
 
Rovers and Robots
 As well as the analogue astronauts, the MARS 2013 included a team of robotic explorers.  Google Lunar X PRIZE competitors, Team Puli, carried out tests of their rover prototype to demonstrate its reliability on extreme, hard terrain and its capability to be operated remotely from a mission control centre in Budapest Town Hall.

ABM Space Education & Mars Society Poland’s Magma White rover tested a range of instruments including the LIFE laser to detect organic materials.  At one point, the two rovers performed an elegant waltz in the desert for two and a half hours as the two project teams remained in contact with each other and coordinated the movements and manoeuvres of the rovers.
 
The HUNVEYOR-4 robot, engineered by the students at the Óbuda University in Hungary, monitored local weather and environmental parameters.
 
Cliffs provide access to layers telling the story of millions years of geological, meteorological and possibly biological activity. The Cliff Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV), a cable-suspended rover also known as Cliffbot, tested the vertical terrain in the area. 
 
"The Moroccon desert environment presents cliffs and slopes similar to what may be found on Mars. The traps that could endanger the vehicle operations, such as cracks in the rocks, overhangs, big blocks, are probably similar as well as the dust environment. We had some difficulties in operating the vehicle and the study of these difficulties is one of the main objectives of the experiment. The vehicle was always safely retrieved," says Alain Souchier, PI of the Cliffbot experiment.
 
Data collected during MARS2013 will be processed, evaluated and analysed over the coming weeks and months. From May 24-26, a scientific workshop will be held in Vienna to discuss the results of the 'mission', marking another step towards the path to manned exploration of Mars.


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