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Simulating Mars on Earth


The Canadian Space Agency’s Mars Exploration Science Rover in the Utah desert during the Mars Sample Return Simulation on 18 November 2016. (Credit: CSA)

The human exploration of Mars is the driving goal of ISECG’s Global Exploration Roadmap (GER). One feature element of the GER is the return of samples from Mars, which is a priority of the international science community.

From October 31 to November 18, 2016, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) led a simulation, or analog, of a Mars sample return mission in the Utah desert, focussing on two parts of the scenario: the selection of samples using rover-based operations by a remote science team, and return of these samples to a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). Participants included university, industry and space agency collaborators from around the world such as DLR and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, NASA, and UK Space Agency. The international science team, which included students from seven Canadian universities, was based at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada.

Analogs provide an environment that approximates an actual mission.  Analog environments occur naturally and are not based on conscious or unconscious preconceptions of a target location, which is possible risk when utilizing a fabricated facility.  When systems and operations are considered sufficiently mature, it is important to test at an analog site to confirm performance, especially with the uncertainties an analog site introduces.

In the initial phase of the mission simulation, the team used the CSA’s Mars Exploration Science Rover (MESR) in Utah, additional hand-held instruments, and different models of team decision-making to test how best to identify and select rocks on Mars that may contain signs of life. The rover was commanded by pilots at the CSA’s headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec, Canada.

As is the case for current remotely-operated Mars rover missions, like Curiosity, the science team planned each day’s rover movements and instrument measurements in advance. The CSA’s rover operations team was sending the commands to the rover through a satellite communication relay.  The Mars-like telecommunication window with the rover meant that the science team and rover pilots were required to wait a day to receive results from each plan. The science team also balanced the challenges of understanding the site, identifying valuable scientific targets using only images and data returned from the rover, and utilizing smart software to pre-select high interest targets for further investigation

The second phase of the mission simulation tested and demonstrated a number of technologies with the MESR that will enable the return of samples to Earth, and may be relevant for sample return from the Moon. For instance, the MESR used its manipulator arm and grapple system to capture the sample tubes collected during the initial phase of the mission simulation. The rover stored the tubes in a container and later transported them to a Mars Ascent Vehicle.

In a part of the test scenario that currently is not possible to replicate on Mars, a separate team of field experts (including members of the science team and collaborators from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the UK Space Agency, the CSA, and the Canadian science community) were on site in Utah to address the same mission sample selection objective as the rover-based remote science operations team.  The samples from the two teams will be compared. Analysis of the “returned samples” over this year will provide insights on the effectiveness of each rover-based sample selection strategy, which will allow for further refinement of Mars sample return mission operations concepts. The decision-making strategies of the human field team and the rover-based science team will also be assessed in order to better understand the advantages of each team, and determine how astronauts can interact more effectively with robotic systems in the future .

Simulations that use realistic “planetary exploration” settings on Earth are a great way to train the next generation of planetary space explorers. These efforts advance mission strategies by providing the benefit of “ground truth”, which is the ability to access a site and confirm results–as well as providing important validation for new technology in an Earth environment on Earth which resembles the target planetary surface. Finally, these simulations play an important role in bringing the international space community together to prepare for eventual collaboration on future planetary exploration missions.

As missions captured in the ISECG GER architecture mature, such international simulations for the Moon and Mars will play a role in demonstrating capabilities, strengthening partnerships, testing mission strategies and validating mission requirements.

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