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First Colombian 100% crew will explore the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah

Although there have already have been 186 missions, with the participation of important universities and academic institutions, including the University of Purdue, former Neil Armstrong alma mater, this is the first time a team formed by Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) professors and students will take part of this project.

Thanks to the photos sent by the Curiosity Space Rover of Mars, the world has seen a little bit of the mountains, craters, deep canyons, giant volcanoes, dunes and important cortex faults of Mars. There are very few landscapes on Earth similar to Mars. Such a place is located in Goblin Valley in the state of Utah. This is the place where the Mars Society, Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is located.

Between January and February of 2019, six Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) researchers will test an optimized version of a spacesuit simulator dubbed as Condor –manufactured with help of the Colombian Air Force– and a land vehicle using a special tire design engineered by the University of Purdue, a weighing lysimeter, developed jointly by the UNal and Colombian firm CLH Ingeniería, and a positioning system based on star recognition. Furthermore, they will also look for microorganisms living in extreme conditions (extremophiles) in the Utah desert.

The team formed by Engineering, Astronomy, Geology and Agrarian Sciences seniors and professors was chosen after a rigorous Mars Society selection process. Faculty of Engineering student and Aerospace Research and Development Group (GIDA, for its Spanish acronym) member Óscar Iván Ojeda Ramírez, says that one of the points in favor to choose this group was the interdisciplinary character of the university , which only a few educational institutions offer this possibility.

The project has three phases:

  • Preparation, taking care of all the elements the team will use and test during different activities
  • Execution, which is the two weeks the rotation will take place
  • End phase, for recovering the obtained data and produce the subsequent reports.

Ojeda, the mission leader says that the fact the expedition will take place during the winter will mean the conditions will be similar to the conditions on Mars where the highest temperatures will not surpass 20°C and temperatures in the range of -11 and 7 ° C for this area and period of the year.

Science and engineering experiments

Part of the goal of the UNal is to characterize extremophile microorganisms in the Utah desert, where there are high salinity levels. “By becoming cognizant of what type of  organisms there are there and understanding how they were capable of adapting to these difficult conditions will undoubtedly provide us indications of what can be encountered on Mars,” said Ojeda.

“After performing a first impression of the terrain and complemented with photos, we will carry out a geology inspection of the location, choosing areas that will allow us to identify these types of organisms, so we can perform a comparative analysis of different samples,” said UNal Geology M.Sc. candidate Yael Natalia Méndez Chaparro.

“Another important aspect is that we will also carry out a rock analysis protocol as if we were on Mars, the fact of just handling a geology hammer inadequately could damage the spacesuit and cause the death of an astronaut, as the atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide and nitrogen,” said UNal Geosciences Ph.D. candidate and mission Geologist Fabián Saavedra.

The mission is also planning on performing astronomical observations. UNal professor Santiago Vargas will be in charge of making photographic records of the sun and diverse stellar fields and celestial bodies. The goal is to research the possible meteorological variables and the quality of the heavens to establish in which moment it would be better to carry out observations.

Astro-mobile and spacesuit made at UNal

The rover or Astro-mobile is a land exploration space vehicle designed by UNal and has six wheels as well as a remote control system that allows for certain autonomy during the exploration missions in the desert. The estimated time for this exploration is approximately five hours.

The prototype has sensors to map the area and identify the type of ground. It also has a software program to measure the water transpiration conditions in order to assess the types of crops which could be planted on the surface.

In order to obtain more accurate data over the usability experience, the team will carry out tests on a spacesuit developed jointly with the Colombian Air Force, which actually is an intermediate version of the final suit which the crew will use on the field.

The spacesuit was designed and manufactured by students of the UNal GIDA group mentioned above and uses a waterproof tarp, high-voltage batteries, and a hydration system, which shows the user an idea of how breathing and mobility will be in real-life Mars situations. It weighs approximately 10 kilograms and is the first Colombian and Latin American test spacesuit.

Although at first sight, these activities do not seem to have a large bearing on what occurs on Earth, in reality, they do, because this type of research is essential to improve the living conditions on our planet.

Consejo Editorial