Preparing for Mars on Earth

The New Yorker has an interesting feature on what it would take to successful man a mission to Mars. The piece focuses on a University of Hawaii computer-science professor named Kim Binsted and the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS program. A dome is set up near the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii:

The dome has a porthole, looking across the saddle at Mauna Kea—a legacy of the first study there, during which the benefit of a windowless exterior (protection from radiation) was found to be less significant than the drawback (the crew hated it). For our visit, the porthole had been covered over to keep the crew’s isolation complete. Quiet as parents on Christmas Eve, we ferried tubs of rice cakes and wet wipes from Costco into a back entry porch. Menus had been worked up during two previous missions in the dome, lasting four months each, during which food cooked ad libitum, even from reconstituted ingredients, rated much higher than the kind of meals-in-a-pouch necessary during zero-gravity travel. Back into the truck went black plastic bags of trash and boxes of saltines that had passed their shelf date. “ ‘Principal investigator’ sounds pretty glamorous,” Binsted said, as she climbed behind the wheel. “But a lot of what I do is space janitor.”

The portions describing their exercise routines caught my attention:

Exercise is built into their routine, as it would be for astronauts trying to maintain muscle mass in low gravity (Mars has three-eighths the gravity of Earth), and the chatty exhortations of Tony Horton, the self-described “fitness clown” who devised the P90X workout routine, permeate their conversations. The communication lag means no surfing the Internet, but Zak Wilson, who is twenty-eight, speculated that e-mail, even if it’s time-delayed, will help astronauts feel less isolated than old-time sailors trapped in the Antarctic ice. Wilson brought a 3-D printer, and as he finds himself casting about for useful items to make—iPad wall mounts, a Scotch-tape dispenser—he concedes that watching the extruder swing back and forth, depositing tiny bits of material with each pass, is “maybe not a terrible analogy for our stay here.”

The team even made a video of them doing p90x:

Worth reading in its entirety.


Further reading from the HI-SEAS participants: Jocelyn’s blog, Zak’s blog, and Martha’s blog.

Future Plans for Mars Travel

The Economist summarizes current plans for missions to Mars:

Six decades later, on February 27th, Dennis Tito, an American investment manager and space enthusiast who, in 2001, became the world’s first space tourist, unveiled his own plan. Inspiration Mars is a more modest affair. If all goes to plan, in January 2018 a single, small spaceship, carrying two crew members, will blast off for a 501-day trip to Mars and back. If it arrives safely, there are no plans to land. Instead, the idea is merely to fly around the planet and then head back to Earth. Unlike von Braun’s project, little government involvement will be necessary. Mr Tito hopes to pay for Inspiration Mars with a mix of his own money, donations from the public and the sale of media rights.

That is not to say that Mr Tito’s plan is timid. On the contrary: it is eye-wateringly (or, as one colleague puts it, “bowel-looseningly”) bold. Although endless studies have been done on how it might be possible to ferry humans to Mars, no one has ever attempted it. Mr Tito’s launch date is fixed, for it is designed to take advantage of a rare period of orbital proximity between Mars and Earth. If he misses his deadline, another opportunity will not present itself until 2031. That gives the team just under five years to design the mission, specify a spacecraft, find a rocket to launch it on, select a crew and carry out all the necessary checks and double-checks. And, without the financial muscle of a nation-state behind him, all this must be done on a budget.


And other non-profit foundations are interested, such as Mars One, a Dutch group that has been advertising for volunteers for a one-way trip, whose crew would end up stranded on Mars, although it has nevertheless received plenty of applicants.

All this interest implies that sending people to Mars is merely a matter of political will and a bit of ingenious engineering. It is not. It is extremely difficult and dangerous, a fact that Mr Tito mentioned repeatedly in his press conference.

So dangerous, in fact, that The Economist initially called the Mars One “a suicide mission.” They’ve since issued a correction in the piece.

The Reddit “AMA” with the Mars Curiosity Team

Over on Reddit today, the members of the Mars Curiosity team did an “Ask Me Anything.” The list of participants included:

Bobak Ferdowsi (aka “Mohawk Guy”) – Flight Director

Steve Collins aka “Hippy NASA Guy” – Cruise Attitude Control/System engineer

Aaron Stehura – EDL Systems Engineer

Jonny Grinblat aka “Pre-celebration Guy” – Avionics System Engineer

Brian Schratz – EDL telecommunications lead

Keri Bean – Mastcam uplink lead/environmental science theme group lead

Rob Zimmerman – Power/Pyro Systems Engineer

Steve Sell – Deputy Operations Lead for EDL

Scott McCloskey -­ Turret Rover Planner

Magdy Bareh – Fault Protection

Eric Blood – Surface systems

Beth Dewell – Surface tactical uplinking

Below are a selection of questions/answers which I found to be most interesting.

Q. Since the Martian Day is 24 hours, 40 minutes, 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, do the JPL scientists and engineers live their lives on Martian days to stay in sync?

A. Yes. All of the operators (engineers, scientists, drivers, planners) live on Mars time, by shifting the schedule +40 minutes each day. This is order to maximize the efficiency of each sol.

On the computers aboard Curiosity:

Q. The processor you guys used feels ancient to me. How did you guys program on it? Is it only “CPU-instructions” or was there some higher level programming for it?

A. You are right that the processor does feel acient. Our current smartphones are more powerful. The reasoning for this is three-fold. First of all, the computer was selected about 8 years ago, so we have the latest and greated space certified parts that existed then. Second of all, it was the most rubost and proven space grade processor at that time. Thirdly, in order to make a processor radiation hardened it requires lots of tricks on the silicon that is not conducive to making it fast. Given that, it does not run any GUIs and can just focus on raw programming, and actually gets a lot done. All of the programming is done in C, and our toolchain is very similar to programming on any platform.

[Editor’s note: see this previous post about Curiosity’s 2MP cameras]

I was surprised by the answer to this question:

Q. How many of you have PhDs?

A. None of us in the room (14 of us).

And the best food-for-thought question came courtesy of Reddit user Terrik27:

Q. What are your thoughts on the quote by Carl Sagan: “If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.” If we found Martian microbes, would we declare the planet a ‘nature preserve’? Would that mean no more missions there at all, or only scientific missions?

A. We abide by a set of planetary protection guidelines that you can read more about here. The groundwork:

1. All countries party to the treaty “shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination.”

2. In accordance with the NASA policy, requirements are based on the most current scientific information available about the target bodies and about life on Earth. The Planetary Protection Officer requests recommendations on implementation requirements for missions to a specific solar system body, or class of bodies, from internal and external advisory committees—but most notably from the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council

3. If the target body has the potential to provide clues about life or prebiotic chemical evolution, a spacecraft going there must meet a higher level of cleanliness, and some operating restrictions will be imposed. Spacecraft going to target bodies with the potential to support Earth life must undergo stringent cleaning and sterilization processes, and greater operating restrictions.

4. Careful mission design and planning are essential to meeting this requirement. For example, at the end of an orbiter mission the spacecraft may be placed into a long-term orbit so that radiation and other elements of the local space environment can eliminate any Earth microbes that might be onboard. After navigation considerations are taken into account, missions must meet stringent cleanliness requirements. Spacecraft and their components must be cleaned very carefully, and sometimes sterilized. After cleaning, spacecraft are tested to ensure that cleanliness requirements have been met and can be maintained until launch.

Also, props to the Curiosity team for liking Bill Nye the Science Guy, which I watched religiously as a kid as well.

You can dig through the entire AMA right here.

Why Does the Mars Rover Curiosity Have 2MP Cameras?

One thing that I’ve been wondering ever since Curiosity landed on Mars is why the cameras on the rover aren’t more sophisticated. Mike Ravine, project manager for Curiosity, explains that the choice for 2MP cameras was because the camera specifications were fixed as far back as 2004:

We developed all four cameras around a common architecture so the choice of sensor was hedged across all of them. We wanted to be able to capture high frame rates, particularly with the descent camera.’ he explains. MARDI, the downwards-pointing ‘descent camera’ had just a two-minute descent to the planet’s surface, so a high frame rate was essential. The KAI-2020 chip was the smallest Kodak made capable of 720p HD video. ‘We also looked at a 4MP sensor but it would have run around half as fast. And the state of CMOS sensors wasn’t credible in 2004. They’re an interesting option now, but they weren’t then.


Another factor was that the same sensor had to meet the needs of four different cameras (MAHLI, the two Mastcams and MARDI, the camera tasked with capturing the rover’s descent to the planets’ surface). ‘Everything in a project like this is sensitive to price and risk, both real and perceived. The cameras differ in terms of their optics, but by building them around a single platform, we didn’t have to re-test and qualify each of them separately. This makes them more dependable and less expensive than if you have to do it four times.


In case you’re wondering where exactly on Mars the rover Curiosity landed, check out this post by Alexis Madrigal.

Curiosity Rover’s 17 Cameras

The Mars Curiosity rover made a safe landing on Mars in the early hours of August 6 (I stayed up and watched the event live). I knew the complexity of the rover, and Wired provides a good overview of Curiosity’s 17 cameras on board:

First up is the Mars Decent Imager (MARDI), which recently beamed back an amazing video of the rover’s nail-biting descent. MARDI turned on during the final few minutes of the “Seven Minutes of Terror” and recorded a full-color high-definition movie as the ground rushed up to meet the rover. With this film (and the coming high-def version), you get to experience what the wild ride down to the surface looked like.

MARDI is a 2-megapixel wide-angle camera mounted toward the front on the port side of Curiosity. The camera came to life just after the spacecraft’s heat shield jettisoned, taking images of a roughly 2 by 2.5-mile square, with a resolution of about 8 feet per pixel. The final fully-in-focus images came when the rover was about 15 feet off the ground. In addition to a thrilling film, MARDI will provide scientists the opportunity to know exactly where Curiosity landed and learn a bit about the surrounding area.

Of course, a telephoto lens is also included:

One of the biggest requests that scientists had for Curiosity was the addition of a telephoto lens. The previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, could see details about as well as a person would on Mars. But MastCam’s right camera has a 100-mm focal-length lens that provides three times the resolution of previous Mars rover cameras. It can distinguish between a football and a basketball from seven football fields away. While the left camera, with its 34-mm lens, can’t see as well, it will provide much wider views – about 15 degrees versus the right camera’s five degree field-of-view.

The raw images from Curiosity are being uploaded on the JPL site.

A Mission to Mars (on Earth)

“Our main challenge right now is to avoid being bored. Every single day is very similar to the previous one.”

At the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow, six men (three Russians, an Italian, a Frenchman, and a Chinese national) are finishing up a remarkable 520-day experiment in isolation. They are participants in a simulated mission to Mars about a “ship” dubbed Mars500.

Bill Donahue, the author of the Wired piece, had a chance to interact with the participants:

When I visited the institute last year…The voyagers were sealed off from terrestrial life, each one allotted a private bunk room just 32 feet square and access to a common living room, a small gym, a greenhouse, and two minuscule lavatories. The crew’s food storage room is almost as big as their living quarters, and when they entered isolation on June 3, 2010, it contained every single calorie they would consume as they soared through “space,” then spent nine days on “Mars” (in this case a small pit of red sand) before returning and exiting a year and a half later.

I did find the betting on who would quit the program a bit unsettling:

Isolation is hard; being deprived of fresh air and social variety makes you go batshit. That narrative is so ingrained in the collective psyche that when the Irish bookmaking chain Paddy Power set odds on Mars500, it all but anticipated failure. If a bettor wagered a dollar that the original six-member crew would not last the whole mission, he was, by Paddy’s lights, practically predicting the sun would rise tomorrow—he’d only get $1.20 back. Paddy, meanwhile, set 8-to-1 odds that at least one crew member would go “clinically insane” after leaving the Mars500 experiment. (Fairly long odds until you consider that most jobs don’t come with an 11 percent chance that you’ll go clinically insane in a year and a half.) The Irish bookie even set odds as to who’d be first to quit. It tapped the sole Chinese astronaut, Yue Wang, putting him at 2-1. (Yue was, after all, the most culturally isolated.)

And if you think everything is rosy aboard the Mars500, consider what has happened in a previous isolation experiment (in the year 2000):

The booze wasn’t the only contraband aboard that simulated space station run. The ship’s Russian cosmonauts regularly watched pornography, Kraft admitted, and one Japanese man, Masataka Umeda, left the mission two months early in protest. Meanwhile, there were cockroaches in the showers and mice crawling up through cracks in the floor.

The experiment sounds quite unpleasant, but these men are doing it for science!

Being aboard Mars500 is mostly menial and toilsome—the astronauts are glorified lab rats. Scientists are keeping close tabs on how the isolates’ hearts are coping with the stress of confinement. They are monitoring the microflora in the crew’s intestines, subjecting them to questionnaires on their interpersonal dramas, and hitting them with regular doses of blue light to gauge its effect on their psychological states. The regimen is at times exhausting. “The biggest challenge for me,” Charles wrote in one email, “is the width of my bed—60 centimeters. As soon as I have more than one device to wear during the night (for blood pressure tests, electrocardiograms, electroencephalograms, etc.), I can’t move.”