The Mars Yard, simulating Mars on Earth

When us humans come to problem solving we are pretty good, we think about the problem, we figure out a solution and then we try it out. Sometimes we stuff it up and have to start again and we will keep doing this until we find a solution, we generally don’t give up. When it comes to very complex and difficult problems we will try and conceptualise the problem rather than just leaping to the real world to solve it, usually. For example we model the atmosphere to try and predict the weather. When it comes to the complex way the humans behave, we also model this through role playing complex scenarios. Those who work in large cooperations or government departments have no doubt done the compulsory courses that require staff to role play various scenarios such as resolving conflict or similar. Often in job interviews there’s a component of role play so that the interviewer can ascertain how the candidate would behave in certain scenarios as well. So when it comes to figuring out how we might survive on Mars it makes sense to simulate different aspects of how humans might survive and how equipment might perform.

Mars Yard, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney (Credit: the author)

We were both lucky enough to visit the Mars Yard at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, Australia a couple of weeks ago to talk to the museum about some exciting science communication work we are going to do later in the year. Whilst there we got to witness first hand the importance of simulation in supporting science to develop solutions for problems that we will face in exploring Mars. The Mars Yard is a simulation of the terrain of a small section of Mars with the same soil types and rocks as well as a couple of very interesting rocks that form part of the Museum exhibit. The Mars Yard is part of an education programme that MAAS run for schools all around Australia where students get to remotely operate rovers on the Mars Yard from their various school locations. They plan missions and then execute them with the help from the staff at MAAS who work in the operations centre and will often video link space related facilities to the students.

The Mars Yard at MAAS (Credit: the author)

There’s also research occurring at the Mars Yard with PHD students working on rover designs and trying them out in the dusty red enclosure which closely represents the physical conditions found on Mars, albeit with significantly more comfortable environmental conditions. We were luck enough to have a small drive of one of the rovers and tested out the manoeuvrability. When you’re standing over the rover with an iPad controller it’s significantly easier to control that if you’re trying to do it remotely. This is where the real value in the simulation is, in that rover operators can control them from anywhere where there is an internet connection and staff at MAAS can build in time delays. The operators then only have the information that’s collected from the cameras to help them guide the rovers around the Mars Yard.

The author at the controls of a rover (Credit: the other author)

The programme that MAAS has put together is stunning, well thought out and very professionally presented. It is a brilliant teaching resource for students and offers a real opportunity to inspire them into what can be achieved by working in the space sector. It opens their eyes to all of the related fields from geology, geomorphology, robotics, software, AI, weather and many more. Many of the earth sciences and technology based disciplines have wide applicability to solving the problems of how to get to, understand and survive on Mars and it’s the work like that occurring at the Mars Yard that is going to grow the next generation of scientists who will be at the forefront of establishing a human footprint on the red planet.

If you’re ever in Sydney then it’s well worth visiting the Powerhouse Museum where MAAS is headquartered. There’s also an awesome space section in the museum, which is a must see.