‘Mars to earth, come in, Earth.’ UCL students can pronounce these words every April when they take off for the red planet—so to speak—via Mars Society’s Mission to Mars project.
Space travel in the 21st century will revolve more than ever around the red planet. European and US programmes have already sent orbiters, probes and rovers; more prospective missions, including sending astronauts, are in preparation. UCL is also embarking on this space odyssey. For the past eight years UCL students have participated every spring in the ‘Mission to Mars’ exploration simulation to determine the best way to explore Mars. They live in a Utah (US) desert station prototype, the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), which mimics possible Martian conditions. It’s one of four stations of the Mars Society’s Mars Analog Research Station Project (MARS). The others are in Iceland, the Canadian far north and remote uninhabited Australia.
Crew 153 reports for duty
In 2015, the members of UCL’s ‘Crew 153’ were Bastien Mathurin (engineer, doctoral student in hydraulics, and mission commander), Martin Evrard (physicist and second-in-command), Auriane Canesse (physicist and health and safety officer), Florian Commans (biologist and ‘GreenHab’ officer), Gaspard Touwaide (engineer and technician) and Romain Compère (literature student and station journalist). Selected by the 2014 Mission to Mars crew, they spent a year preparing for this special mission. From 11 to 26 April 2015, the crew occupied the Utah desert station, a capsule eight meters in diameter, housing bedrooms, a kitchen and laboratory. They conducted biological, technological and geological experiments to learn more about exploration and manned flight to Mars. Some experiments were conclusive, others less so. A summary:
- Mapping the strength of a Wi-Fi network: the goal was to demarcate the area in which it’s possible to communicate with the base and to enlarge it using relay antennas.
- Geological experiments measuring ground electrical conductivity on one hand and magnetism on the other. While the first experiment was successful, the second was inconclusive owing to imprecise readings.
- Microbiological experiment: looking for traces of bacteria in soil samples. Results: 33 colonies were selected and analysed.
- Astronomical experiment: because the initial goal of creating a spectroscopy of the planets was hindered by technical difficulties, the crew instead photographed stars and galaxies.
- Run-off modelling based on erosion traces: inconclusive results owing to very friable soil and imprecise measurements.
- A film about the crew’s adventures on the red planet. Entitled, ‘Les filets ocres’, it mixes photography and film, fiction and reality. The plot centres on the anxieties and thoughts of an astronaut who must deal with a murder on Mars. The film premiered as part of the UCL theme year dedicated to utopias.
Our explorers endured many constraints, including scant contact with earth, water rationing, writing daily reports, unappetising (though according to the crew decent, if one’s inventive) lyophilised—freeze-dried—food, and ‘space walks’ requiring jumpsuits and space suits (Martian atmospheric pressure is one-third of earth’s and its atmosphere mostly carbon dioxide) and one-day advance notice. They were nevertheless ready for all of these, according to Mission Commander Bastien Mathurin.
What is the commander’s role? Mr Mathurin explains, ‘He’s not the team leader but rather makes sure that simulation conditions are respected, ensures safety, and, if a problem arises, such as a broken water pump, contacts the Mars Society.’ To make sure they would work well together, the team benefitted from thorough preparation and many team-building activities. In addition to project and budget management, this pre-mission planning helped bind the group and guarantee team cohesion for the future mission, with each individual assigned a precise role. The project’s human dimension is very important and one of its strengths; unknown to each other when they applied, today the six students are friends.
A training mission
What next? After returning to earth, at UCL, having experienced the Utah desert and confinement in their capsule, the crew wrote an activity report and trained next year’s crew. Thus Crew 153 selected members of Crew 166 one year prior to its departure in April 2016 and trained them, completing the cycle.
Coup d'oeil sur la bio de Mathieu Roiseux