Today Utah, tomorrow Mars

“We need to speak to the mission commander’’. Professor Mary Bourke speaks to a table of seven Geography and Earth Sciences undergraduate students gathered in the Museum building. To an onlooker, it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary class meeting. The modest classroom has been transformed into makeshift mission control. The topic under discussion is an Earth-based analogue mission to Mars due to be conducted this December.

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The mission will be completed by the Mars Desert Research Crew 185 from December 13 – 31 in an isolated research base in the Utah Desert. The landscape surrounding the research facility is a geologic analogue for the Martian surface – what works there will work on Mars. A rotating team of scientists and engineers are to spend a full eight months in the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) conducting field work, as it would be done during Mars mission. The facility was established in 2001 by the Mars Society, as a volunteer-led research base with the aim of enhancing our efforts towards human exploration of the Red Planet.
In preparation for each field season, the Mars Society invites students, graduates and working professionals to submit proposals for field research to be conducted onsite by a selected MDRS Crew. This season’s Crew 185 will conduct the first ever experiments designed by an Irish undergraduate cohort. The team is made up of sever Junior Sophomore Trinity students who are under the guidance of Dr. Bourke, a Fellow of Trinity who has a number of ongoing NASA funded research projects.
‘’What’s amazing about this project is that it demonstrates the abilities of the highly motivated undergraduate cohort in Trinity. The team has shown endless passion and creativity for the project despite the fact that they receive no course accreditation for such extra-curricular work,” Dr. Bourke said of the group of students she is guiding through the process. She continued: “The different approach to learning has provided a platform for the students to actively utilise their skills and knowledge of planetary geomorphology in a real world environment’’.

Geologist Orgel makes her way back to  the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert
One team, dubbed MARV (Mars Aerial Research Vehicle) has chosen to focus their efforts on minimising hazards for Martian scientists while out in the field collecting samples. The aim of the experiment is to evaluate the responses of a vehicle with increased sample loads, over various terrain types, and to produce a hazard map for the study area. The inspiration for the experiment came from difficulties encountered in previous missions such as the Mars Exploration Rover and Opportunity Rover in which the rover got stuck in sand or was damaged by terrain. The team is led by Lucie Delobel, a Junior Sophomore Earth Sciences student. Lucie is joined by Liza Jabbour and Alexander Fitzpatrick, both of whom are JS Geography students, and Emily Nolan, a JS Earth Scientist.
The second experiment accepted by the MDRS is led by Nancy Williams, a JS Earth Scientist. Nancy is joined by Sorcha O’Carolan-Murphy, a JS Earth Scientist; Sarah Fisher, a JS Earth Scientist; and Kiara Mulvey, a JS Geography student.
Aeolian sediment transport plays a vital role in the evolution of the Martian landscape.The processes driving sediment transport on Mars remain elusive to planetary scientists – as the composition of sediment on Mars is vastly different to that of Earth. The most dramatic examples of aeolian action on Mars comes in the form of global dust storms, which are a natural hazard for future Mars missions. In addition to large scale dust storms, the dust on Mars clings to equipment and can damage machinery. The purpose of the experiment designed by the aptly named ‘’Gone with the Wind’’ team, is to test the rate of transport of sediment of various densities in the locale of the MDRS. The team hopes to further our understanding of aeolian transport on Mars and use it to predict sediment transport on the planet. Once armed with this knowledge, scientists can better predict suitable locations for future Mars based Hab stations.
The interdisciplinary teams working on this project are required to provide the equipment for their experiment. The apparatus required varies from batteries to flying drones which come with a cost of nearly €5,000. Thankfully, the teams have secured funding from Polecat, a technology firm based in London. The project is still ongoing, and you can keep up to date with the team’s progress on the Earth and Planetary Surface Processes Group blog and the DU Mars Desert Research Facebook Page.

This article was originally published in Trinity News December 2017.

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