Simulating Mars on Earth

Ross Slater, a 5th year Physics student at Edinburgh University, talks about the 3-day Analog Mission Basic Training course he attended in Innsbruck earlier this summer, run by the Austrian Space Forum.


The Austrian Space Forum (ÖWF) is a citizen science organisation focusing on analog planetary research, which uses environments on Earth to simulate the conditions on other planets. They have previously run many successful Mars research missions through their AMADEE program, the most recent of which was the month long AMADEE 18 hosted in Oman. The organisation is volunteer run with members from a wide range of backgrounds, including space industry professionals as well as students and space enthusiasts.

The Analog Mission Basic Training course is designed to introduce participants to the basics of analog research, as well as the technical roles on site and in the Mission Support Centre which are required for these missions to run successfully. One of the main focuses of the research is on the effect of the time delay in communications between Earth and Mars. Because of this, future astronauts will have a much higher degree of autonomy than in previous space missions, and these simulations are used to develop new protocols and training. 

I am very interested in human space exploration, and this course seemed to me a brilliant opportunity to gain some insight into how we are preparing to explore other planets. Although I was very enthusiastic to apply, I was slightly apprehensive as I had no prior experience with this kind of research or any professional experience in the space industry for that matter. Fortunately this wasn’t a problem as there was a pre-course assignment designed to bring everyone to the same level of knowledge before the course began. The participants came from a variety of backgrounds, with a good mixture of students and professionals both in and outside of typical ‘space’ fields such as physics and engineering.

Day 1: Introductions

We met on the Friday evening for a brief introductory lecture before going for a group dinner arranged by the course organisers. It was very enjoyable to chat with people from all over Europe who were very passionate about space and the future of human space exploration.  

Day 2: Learning the Basics

Saturday was a much longer day, with more lectures and a group flight planning exercise where we had to schedule the day’s activities for a field crew. This meant balancing time requirements for scientific experiments with the available daylight, three meals, and the time required for donning and removal of the Aouda spacesuit simulator. Trying to schedule all of this was a hard task as we were only given 30 minutes and it normally takes most of the day!

Next to the Aouda spacesuit. Photo Credits: OeWF

The Aouda spacesuit simulator is designed to replicate certain attributes of the suits which will eventually be used on Mars. Two suits have been constructed by ÖWF, each slightly different having evolved over time. They are used to test new technologies such as a Head-Up Display in the helmet for mission scheduling. As the suits are not pressurised, they also have an exoskeleton which resists the wearer’s movement to replicate the resistance to movement caused by the pressure of a real space suit. 

In the afternoon we had a video call with one of the ÖWF’s Analog Astronauts. An analog astronaut is someone who, after undergoing an extensive selection process, is trained in all the procedures and techniques required to participate in a full analog mission. We learnt about the training required of an analog astronaut, as well as the work they do during and between missions. When not taking part in simulations, the analog astronauts undertake further training and also take part in outreach activities, much like real astronauts do.

We then moved across town to the Spacesuit Laboratory where we got to see the Aouda suits in person. Wearing the suit gloves made me realise why so much effort goes into developing gloves that fit astronauts well. Wearing only the outer layer (there is also an inner and mid layer) it was clear that your dexterity was significantly decreased when wearing the gloves, making even the simplest of tasks challenging. 

At dinner that evening we were joined by the current class of eight Analog Astronaut candidates, who were also in Innsbruck for training. It was really interesting to speak to them about their experiences through the selection process and the training which they were doing. Some of it might not be as conventional as you would think: a highlight of the day had been the quad bike practice, which is necessary for safely traversing long distances when doing field work during missions. 

Group picture. There were a mixture of students and  professionals from a variety of backgrounds. Photo Credits: OeWF

 

Day 3: Mission Support 

Sunday was a shorter day focusing on the roles in the Mission Support Centre and communication protocols. This ended in a small mission support scenario where we were each designated a role in the Mission Support Centre. This was very fun but also showed how quickly things can get out of hand if proper procedure isn’t followed!

A great experience

The course was very interesting, and it was great to learn from others who share the same interest. Having completed the course I have found that there are lots of opportunities to be involved in future research missions. Previously I had thought that getting involved in this kind of research would be very hard to do, but this has made me realise that you should always give things like this a shot, even if you’re worried that you might not be selected!

You can find out more about the work the Austrian Space Forum do, and future courses they are running, on their website: www.oewf.org/en.

Author

Jacob Smith

Jacob studies MSc Astronautics and Space Engineering at Cranfield University

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