The scheduled launch date of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is fast approaching. And with less than a year to go, it’s now crunch time for the space agency and its partners. Testing strategies for Mars exploration might seem impossible here on Earth, but our planet does indeed have some terrain that is comparable to what NASA’s rovers have to deal with on the Red Planet.
Recently, NASA sent a team of over a dozen scientists and engineers to Iceland to test new Mars exploration techniques in a lava field that closely matches the Mars landscape.
The lava field is located 62 miles away from the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik.
The team brought a rover prototype to test various techniques that could come in handy in future Mars missions, including the Mars 2020 affair. However, it’s a whole lot more durable than anything NASA or anyone has ever sent to the Red Planet.
At the foot of Langjokull, Iceland’s second biggest glacier, on the black basalt sand of the Lambahraun lava field, scientists and engineers gathered for three weeks to develop and test the Martian rover and drone prototypes.
The project, known as SAND-E (Semi-Autonomous Navigation for Detrital Environments), is a collaborative and NASA-funded effort to test these technologies in a Mars-like environment. The tests aim to collect data that will liable for the Mars 2020 operations.
The team worked in Iceland because the country “is an analog for Mars and for the moon,” Ryan Ewing said. Scientists believed that before Mars lost its atmosphere and became the barren and frozen desert it is today, it had many things in common with Iceland.
By testing out space tech in places on Earth like Iceland, scientists can “put boots on the ground and test what [they] think can do on another world without going there first,” Erwin stressed.
The team hopes that these tests will mitigate risks for future missions using similar tech.
The site where the team tested the robots was especially unique. “we basically started as close as we could get to the glacier and we would navigate the rover through these active rivers that were beneath the glacier,” Ewing said.
They were able to “test how the sediment that is generated from glacial erosion and river erosion and wind erosion changes both physically and chemically,” he added.
Furthermore, “the mineralogy in Iceland is very similar to what we would find on Mars,” Ewing said in a statement.
“In addition to that, we don’t have much vegetation, it’s cold and we have some of the environments like sand dunes and rivers and glaciers that Mars has evidence of in the past.”
SAND-E is a collaboration between researchers from Texas A&M University, NASA Johnson Space Center, Purdue University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Reykjavik University. The project is funded by NASA’s Planetary Science and Technology Through Analog Research (PSTAR) program.
The project is also supported by the private Canadian space company Mission Control Space Services Inc., which leads outreach and education efforts.
“We’re aiming to get this information out as quickly as possible this year so that the [Mars] 2020 operations team, when that’s selected, will be able to use this information to streamline those operations,” Ryan Ewing, an associate professor in Texas A&M University’s Department of Geology and Geophysics who serves as Texas A&M’s principal investigator for the project, told Space.com.
From July 8 to Aug. 5, the research team tested the prototype rover, which is a small, orange-and-white electric vehicle, and a drone meant to showcase the potential capabilities of the Mars 2020 helicopter, over the lava field.
In testing the drone, the team was able to make high-resolution maps of the surface, and using information collected by the drone, “the scientists were able to quickly make decisions about where they wanted to navigate the rover and which science target they wanted to pick,” Ewing said.
According to Ewing, the images and data collected by the drone were much higher resolution than images that might be acquired by a Mars-orbiting satellite. So, while spacecraft like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provides a satellite view for rovers on the surface of the Red Planet, future rovers could get a clearer view with observations from drones flying just above the planet’s surface.
Although the Mars 2020 helicopter is currently just a technology demonstration, Ewing suggested that work like this study could help to support future exploration with aircraft on Mars.
The rover has four-wheel drive and two motors powered by 12 small car batteries. “This rover we have … (is) basically indestructible,” Adam Deslauriers, manager of space and education, at Canada’s Mission Control Space Services, said to AFP. “The rovers that we have on Mars and the Moon would be a lot more sensitive to the environment and conditions of Iceland.”
Controlled remotely, the 1,257-pound (570 kilograms) rover moves at 7.9 inches (20 centimeters) per second. The rover’s pace might seem glacial, but it is much faster than the vehicle would travel on the surface of Mars. This slow pace allows the rover to use its sensors and dual-lens camera to collect data and images as it traverses the Icelandic terrain.
This prototype wasn’t able to collect and store samples, like the Mars 2020 rover will be able to do, so the researchers manually collected samples at the sites that the rover traversed.