A Mock Mission to Mars

May 30, 2012

In April 2012, a team of UA engineering seniors left their home at the University of Arizona and went on a 2-week simulated mission to Mars to test a camera they designed for NASA. The students’ senior project, part of the College of Engineering senior capstone program, was to develop the NASA-sponsored remote imaging system acquisition, or RISA.

While they didn’t actually blast off to the Red Planet, they experienced a very real approximation of extraterrestrial living at the Mars Desert Research Station on the San Rafael Swell of southern Utah. Owned and operated by the Mars Society and built in the early 2000s, the station represents the perfect environment for small crews to perform research in a very real harsh environment.

In addition to crew commander and optical engineering major Kyle Stephens, Crew 117 included the other members of the RISA senior design team: Parker Owan, electrical engineering major, mission executive officer and crew scientist; Jackeline Mayer, majoring in optical sciences and engineering, and crew health and safety officer; Lee Suring, crew engineer and mechanical engineering senior; and Sam Martin, crew engineer, majoring in optical sciences and engineering. The team also included journalist and videographer Daniel Land.

New mission requirements mean that future NASA space vehicles will have less room, which is why NASA specified that RISA should incorporate the abilities of multiple existing cameras into a single system.

This means that RISA will do double duty as a camera for rover-based planetary surface exploration, as well an onboard camera for NASA space vehicles. The project is sponsored by NASA’s Johnson Space Center and is currently in its sixth year of development.

The RISA Mission

For this mission, Crew 117 tested the RISA camera by conducting projects in geology, astronomy, water monitoring, greenhouse monitoring, and vehicle testing. “We are testing the camera’s electrically tunable multispectral filter by imaging the atmosphere at specific wavelengths to determine water vapor content,” said Stephens.

Stephens said: “So far we have been exploring the area and using a small remote-control rover… in addition to performing some EVAs.” The crew built the camera as a wireless system it could be used as a tool for robotic navigation.

During their mission, supported by a UA/NASA Space Grant, the crew also aimed to prove that the camera could be used for everyday operational duties such as monitoring water tank levels, equipment operation, crew activities, and plant health in the greenhouse.

The RISA project still has some distance to go before it will be ready for moving from simulations to the real thing. “While we focused on developing key components like the optical design and the wireless communication system,” Stephens said, “more work will need to be done to create a flight-certified system.”

“Finishing the project was not in the scope of our year,” added Stephens, “but we have compiled a great amount of information and hardware that will help future teams move forward with the project.”

Life in the Hab

Life inside "the hab"During the simulated mission, the stark red Utah desert played the role of the Martian environment; Crew 117 treated the outside environment as a hostile planetary surface. They wore simulated space suits — known as “sim suits” — each and every time they ventured into the outdoors.

In true extra-terrestrial style, the crew lived in a tight two-story habitat, the “hab,” from where they had access to a greenhouse, a telescope and observatory, and all-terrain vehicles for extra-vehicular activities, or EVAs. “The surrounding area is very remote, so the complete isolation aids in creating the simulated environment,” said Stephens.

The crew settled in and got to work quickly, and didn’t experience any reality-TV-style confrontations, although mission XO Parker Owan was looking forward to a little more physical freedom.

“I think being unable to do outdoor activities without going through a lengthy suit-up process is the worst part because I love being outside all the time,” Owan said. “Even then, you’re still enclosed in a stifling suit that doesn’t allow for a whole lot of airflow. I think when it is all done, going outside will be the thing I look forward to most.”

Not every activity aboard the hab is mission critical, and the crew has some down time. Along with the RISA project, they are helping with a study to determine what kind of food is most suited to interplanetary travel.

“With six people in a small hab,” said crew engineer Sam Martin, “freeze-dried chili is a bad idea.”

Keeping busy was no trouble, either. There is always gardening and maintenance to be done, Stephens said, “but there’s no escape from homework.”