Long Beach Brings The Robots Back

Why is robotics so popular in American Education?  California State University, Long Beach is a great location for a First Robotics Competition.


By Walter Martinez, Southern California Robotics Society

California State University has seen its share of robots over the years from the first television filming of Battlebots in 1999, monthly meetings by the Robotics Society of Southern California to the high energy For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology or FIRST regional competition happening this weekend of March 24-25th, 2017.  High schools from all over Southern California and surrounding counties are participating.

FIRST a non-profit organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen in 1999 has expanded internationally with several thousand high schools competing. FIRST is set to reach 85,000 high school students this year.

What makes FIRST a high school level robotics competition is the competitors. The students are on fire to share stories about their teams, mentors and how they help their communities. Often awards and accolades are given not to just the best technical robot or creative algorithm, instead the winners are the teams who worked together the best, the team who makes an impact in their community and can lead the next team from their school to thrive on their legacy. Their motto “To create a world where science and technology are celebrated… where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes”  FIRST encourages professionalism and cooperation.

In this year’s games you will find the popular Steampunk theme, a genre of science fiction with lots of gears and steam engines where the new challenges arena has the neo Victorian gold, copper color tones. In this event there are mentors and sponsors from SpaceX, JPL, the Robotics Society of Southern California and many others.  The Long Beach team Momentum Robotics has students from several Long Beach high schools including the Sato Academy of Mathematics and Science. The CSULB pyramid is sure to rumble this weekend with over 60 exciting teams ready to compete in this  “a sport of the mind”. FIRST STEAMWORKS has a  new challenging arena where students with limited resources, time and help of a mentor (mostly engineers and teachers) will get to make their robots perform solutions to problems representing real world situations. All teams use the same type of parts so creativity becomes an important part of how this students learn different engineering skills to come up with a superior design to tackle the challenges. So let the games begin!



Prototyping Listening to Mars

Ten student interns at the Long Beach Unified School District’s California Academy for Mathematics and Science, (CAMS) High School will be building prototypes of the 2020 Mars Rover with STEAM++ director Bob Barboza and physicists, John Davis.  This is part of the Occupy Mars Learning Adventure project-based learning and distance learning programs.  www.KidsTalkRadioScience.com.

New Mars 2020 rover will be able to ‘hear’ the Red Planet

Story highlights

  • The new Mars rover will have new sound and image capabilities
  • It will also contain new instruments that aim to study the Martian surface
  • What we learn from these instruments could help the human mission to Mars

(CNN)When the newly developed Mars 2020 rover lands on the Red Planet in February 2021 after embarking on a seven-month cruise through space, we will be able to hear sounds of the landing and the Martian surface for the first time, according to NASA.

“Not only is there going to be a microphone, there will be several microphones,” said Kenneth Farley, Mars 2020 project scientist. “There will be a microphone as part of [the camera system during entry, descent and landing] and we will also have a microphone on one of the science instruments that will allow us to hear sounds on the surface as we are driving around. So we will have the first sounds coming back from Mars.”
Microphones were included on previous Mars missions, such as NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander in 2008, but they were never utilized. A suite of cameras will allow us to see and hear what it’s like for the rover to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend and land on the surface. It will also be able to take selfies, although NASA isn’t disclosing how at the moment.
The rover’s mission is to seek signs of life on the Red Planet for two years. NASA is aiming to launch within a 30-day window in July 2020. If officials don’t have the rover ready to go during that short time frame, they will have to wait another two years to launch, said Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
Scientists estimate that Mars is, or most certainly was, the most habitable planet in our solar system outside of Earth. Now, the planet is cold, dry and has a lot of radiation on the surface, which isn’t conducive to life as we know it, Farley said.
But after spending a Martian year on the surface, which is 687 days on Earth, the Mars Curiosity rover has collected evidence of all the conditions necessary for microbial life within the rocks on the Red Planet. There are clues in the rocks pointing to a once wet, warm planet with lakes, rivers and deltas, a habitable environment where life could have evolved and thrived. When the planet transitioned to being a cold desert 3.5 billion years ago, that life most certainly disappeared.
The new rover on the block wants to find that life and any other secrets hiding in the Martian rock and soil. It hasn’t been named yet because NASA wants to open that honor to the public.

Shiny new features

While the rover for the 2020 mission may look similar to Curiosity, which launched in 2011, it includes some exciting new features and proposed instruments from researchers in the United States, France, Spain and Norway that will enable us to see and explore Mars in an innovative way.
NASA announced these innovations and more details of the rover’s mission, which is entering the final design and construction phase, during a Facebook Live event Friday.
Using the same platform as Curiosity, the new rover has a nuclear power source that can last at least 10 years, and has several cameras. Mastcam-Z, aptly located on the mast, can zoom like binoculars and create both panoramic and stereoscopic images, while also determining the mineral makeup of the Martian surface. This camera can also make 3-D maps.
Besides imaging and mineralogy, a second instrument called SuperCam can analyze chemical compounds and detect organic molecules in rocks and the dusty surface from a distance. The researchers are also excited to have PIXL onboard, an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer with high-resolution capabilities to map the elements in the Martian soil with greater detail and the best detection and analysis of chemical elements so far. Located on the rover’s robotic arm, these can investigate a piece of rock the size of a postage stamp to look at the structure, fabric, element and mineral make-up of Martian rocks, as well as identify and map the distribution of organic molecules. Some of those organic molecules could be associated with life.
Another spectrometer called SHERLOC will fire a laser at rocks in the distance and read the signals received in return to determine the elements and minerals within those rocks. This will give the rover an added advantage of learning more about the geologic environment it’s exploring, which will be about 6.2 miles.
The rover will also be equipped with a ground-penetrating radar called RIMFAX, which can investigate tens of meters beneath the surface it is traversing and look for unusual features like ice or brine.
On top of the deck is a weather station called MEDA, which can measure temperature, the speed and direction of the wind, humidity and more properties of the dust it encounters.
Last but not least, MOXIE will convert the carbon dioxide of the Martian atmosphere into oxygen.
Many of these new instruments will help NASA determine more about safely landing humans on Mars and this mysterious surface they would explore.
The new rover benefits from lessons learned while observing Curiosity and the issues that it has faced during its mission. The wheels, which are tougher than those on Curiosity after it faced issues traversing sharp rocks, are capable of digging little trenches on the Martian surface. A puffer will blow compressed air across rock samples so that the instruments on the rover can study it better.
This rover is equipped with a coring drill on a five-jointed robotic arm that can position anywhere in front of the rover to take samples of rock, according to Matt Robinson, Mars 2020 sampling and caching team deputy manager at JPL. It can use a percussive jackhammer-like mode on tougher rocks, such basalt on Earth, and a rotary-only mode for the weaker ones, such as mud stones.
Five different drill bits, which an engineer operating the rover from Earth can program the rover to change out, have space to store a core sample. They will then drop each core sample into a clean tube, use instruments on the rover to take a picture of the sample, seal the tube and then leave the samples in a pile so a future mission can pick them up. Because that mission would be determined in the future, there are currently no more details on Martian samples making the journey to Earth.
The drills can also upbraid the surface or rock if scientists want to use the rover’s instruments to have a closer look at the details.

Sticking the landing

Much like Curiosity, Mars 2020’s rover will use a sky crane landing system. In order to land the rover gently on its wheels, a parachute slows the descent of the vehicle after entering the atmosphere and the heat shield separates. Rockets slow down the descent until it is safe enough for the sky crane attached to the rover to lower it on an “umbilical cord” of sorts. Sensors tell the sky crane when the rover has safely touched down, which cuts the cord and powers the crane to crash land far away from the path of the rover.
Then, it’s ready to rove.
Unlike while it’s on the surface and exploring, the rover’s landing is entirely autonomous, with no help from engineers, This time, a range trigger will be added, which helps the descent vehicle determine if it needs to open the parachute earlier or later than expected. It will also use a suite of cameras to steer away from unsafe landing zones. This enables the rover to land in a more specific destination or a tighter spot. This new technology shrinks the area or margin of error by 50%.
But where to land? Scientists have narrowed it down to eight possible landing sites. They want it to be able to land safely on a flatter surface that is surrounded by rocky terrain with the signs of habitability they want to study.
“We want a lot of rocks or rock outcrop, because that’s what tells us the geologic story,” Farley said. “These must date from the days when Mars was wet 3.5 billion years ago. Out of the eight sites, the first half are associated with surface water such as rivers, lakes and deltas recorded in the rocks. The other half are associated with high temperature water circulating through the rocks. On Earth, those are areas where microbial life thrives.”
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Over the next couple of years, they hope to determine the final landing site.
In the meantime, Curiosity’s observations continue to thrill us, the MAVEN orbiter will arrive in September to study the Martian upper atmosphere and the InSight lander will launch in 2018 to study the interior of the planet. These are part of the continuing Mars Exploration program, which are paving the way for a human landing on the Red Planet.
“This is taking the first step towards what we’ve wanted for a long time,” Farley said.

International Students Are Cooking Space Food for a Trip to Mars


Students at the Barboza Space Center are exploring the idea of cooking space food.  This article will help to set the stage at your school or afterschool STEM program.  We are stronger if we work together.  Who wants to help?  We want to publish your ideas.   Suprschool@aol.com

How bright is the future of space food
by Staff Writers
Honolulu HI (SPX) Feb 27, 2017

illustration only

Research at the University of Hawai?i at Manoa could play a major role in NASA’s goal to travel to Mars in the 2030s, including what the astronauts could eat during that historic mission.

A trip to Mars and back is estimated to take about two and half years, and ideally, their diet would be healthy while requiring minimal effort and energy. UH Manoa mechanical engineering student Aleca Borsuk may have the solution.

“I picked a really hearty, heat tolerant, drought tolerant species of edible vegetable, and that is amaranth. It’s an ancient grain,” said Borsuk, who determined that she could significantly increase the edible parts, which is basically the entire plant, by changing the lighting. “If you move the lights and have some of them overhead and some of them within the plant leaves, it can actually stimulate them to grow faster and larger.”

This is without adding more lights and by using energy efficient LEDs. Thanks to Borsuk’s work with lighting, plants could play an important role in the future of space travel.

“This plant would do the same thing that it does here on Earth, which is regenerate oxygen in the atmosphere,” said Borsuk. “It also can provide nutrition for the astronauts and if you can imagine being away from Earth for many years, you know tending something that’s green would have a psychological boost as well.”

A 2013 UH Presidential Scholar, Borsuk presented her research at the Hawai?i Space Grant Consortium Spring 2016 Fellowship and Traineeship Symposium and at the 2016 American Society for Horticultural Science Conference in Florida. She is mentored by UH Manoa Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences Associate Professor Kent Kobayashi, who is also an American Society for Horticultural Science Fellow.

International Mars Art Contest: We need students.

Mars Society to Hold Int’l Student Mars Art Contest

The Mars Society announced today that it is sponsoring a Student Mars Art (SMArt) Contest, inviting youth from around the world to depict the human future on the planet Mars. Young artists from grades 4 through 12 are invited to submit up to three works of art each, illustrating any part of the human future on the Red Planet, including the first landing, human field exploration, operations at an early Mars base, the building of the first Martian cities, terraforming the Red Planet and other related human settlement concepts.

The SMArt Contest will be divided into three categories: Upper Elementary (grades 4-6), Junior High (grades 7-9), and High School (Grades 10-12). Cash prizes of $1,000, $500 and $250, as well as trophies, will be given out to the first, second and third place winners of each section. There will also be certificates of honorable mention for those artists who don’t finish in the top three, but whose work is nevertheless judged to be particularly meritorious.

The winning works of art will be posted on the Mars Society web site and may also be published as part of a special book about Mars art. In addition, winners will be invited to come to the 20th Annual International Mars Society Convention at the University of California, Irvine September 7-10, 2017 to display and talk about their art.

Mars art will consist of still images, which may be composed by traditional methods, such as pencil, charcoal, watercolors or paint, or by computerized means. Works of art must be submitted via a special online form (http://nextgen.marssociety.org/mars-art) in either PDF or JPEG format with a 500 MB limit. The deadline for submissions is May 31, 2017, 5:00 pm MST. By submitting art to the contest, participating students grant the Mars Society non-exclusive rights to publish the images on its web site or in Kindle paper book form.

Speaking about the SMArt Contest, Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin said, “The imagination of youth looks to the future. By holding the SMArt Contest, we are inviting young people from all over the world to use art to make visible the things they can see with their minds that the rest of us have yet to see with our own eyes. Show us the future, kids. From imagination comes reality. If we can see it, we can make it.”

Questions about the Mars Society’s SMArt Contest can be submitted to: Marsart@marssociety.org.

Keeping Up With Antarctica News

Sea ice around Antarctica shrinks to record low

Just two years ago, there was a record high level of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere
FEB 17, 2017 — 4:02 PM EST
Antarctica ice

The extent of sea ice around Antarctica hit a new low in January. This bucks an overall growing trend that has been going on since recordkeeping began in 1979.


The continent of Antarctica is surrounded by sea ice. The amount of ice grows in the winter and shrinks in summer. The total area is covers changes from year to year. And it just set a new record in January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports. That month, Antarctic sea ice shrunk to the lowest monthly extent ever recorded.

Antarctic sea ice averaged just 4.04 million square kilometers (1.6 million square miles). That’s 1.19 million square kilometers (0.46 million square miles) below the 1981 through 2010 average. And that’s 280,000 square kilometers (108,000 square miles) smaller than the previous record low, set in 2006.

The new record comes just two years after the largest January Antarctic sea ice extent on record. Southern Hemisphere sea ice had been growing by about 3 percent per decade since recordkeeping began in 1979. However, there is a lot of year-to-year variation.

The cause of the record-low ice — and whether future years will similarly buck the growing trend — is unclear, James Pope said in a statement. He is a climate scientist with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England. “It is difficult to identify what is causing the record minimum and whether anything significant has changed” so close to the record-setting event, he said. Researchers may not understand for years what caused the decline in sea ice. “We will now study the data with interest and look at what is causing this minimum,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the Northern Hemisphere, where it is winter, Arctic sea ice is growing. But sea ice there set another record. It had its smallest January extent on record. That edges out the previous record — set just last year.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

Antarctica     A continent mostly covered in ice, which sits in the southernmost part of the world.

Arctic     A region that falls within the Arctic Circle. The edge of that circle is defined as the northernmost point at which the sun is visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the northern summer solstice.

Arctic sea ice     Ice that forms from seawater and that covers all or parts of the Arctic Ocean.

average     (in science) A term for the arithmetic mean, which is the sum of a group of numbers that is then divided by the size of the group.

climate     The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

continent     (in geology) The huge land masses that sit upon tectonic plates. In modern times, there are six geologic continents: North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration     (or NOAA) A science agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Initially established in 1807 under another name (The Survey of the Coast), this agency focuses on understanding and preserving ocean resources, including fisheries, protecting marine mammals (from seals to whales), studying the seafloor and probing the upper atmosphere.

sea     An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.

square     (in geometry) A rectangle with four sides of equal length. (In mathematics) A number multiplied by itself, or the verb meaning to multiply a number by itself. The square of 2 is 4; the square of 10 is 100.

survey     (v.) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.

Readability Score:


Further Reading

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information: Global Snow and Ice January 2017

Building Walls on Mars

The Occupy Mars Learning Adventures team is working on lots of ideas for Mars.  We are members of the Mars Society and want to share what people are doing.  We will not build a wall.  Bob Barboza

Mission Summary – Crew 174

Mars Desert Research Station End of Mission Summary

Crew 174 – Team PLANETEERS


Team PLANETEERS (All Indian Crew):

Commander:  Mamatha Maheshwarappa

Executive Officer/Crew Scientist:  Saroj Kumar

Engineer/Journalist:  Arpan Vasanth

GreenHab Officer:  Sneha Velayudhan

Crew Health & Safety Officer/Geologist:  Sai Arun Dharmik

Success occurs when your dreams get bigger than your excuses


The Solar System is a tiny drop in our endless cosmic sea (Universe). Within our solar system, a very few planets host an environment suitable for some life forms to exist. The closest one being Mars after the Earth, following the success of rovers such as Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity and several space probes, the human understanding of the planet has reached new levels. The next important aspect is to find out if there exist any life forms or if the planet had hosted any life in the past. Although the rovers send out a lot of information about the planet, so far humans have not found anything substantial. With advancements in science and technology by organizations such as NASA, ESA, ISRO, CNSA along with private industries such as SpaceX manned mission to Mars seems to be within reach in a few years. To carry out successful missions humans will have to develop key tactics to cope up extreme conditions, confined spaces and limited resources. Team Planeteers (MDRS Crew 174) is the first all Indian crew consisting of five young aspirants from different domain who have come together to embark on a special mission in order to develop such key tactics. The crew was successful in executing the planned experiments. The key for their success is the temperament and dedication shown by each individual and fixing small issues immediately. Since all the members were of same origin, food and cultural aspects was an advantage. Going forward the team is planning out for outreach activities. As a part of QinetiQ Space UK, Mamatha will be involved in outreach, education and media activities (TeenTech & STEMNET). Similarly, Saroj and Sneha will be conducting STEM outreach activities at Unversity of Alabama and Rochester Institute of Technology respectively.

Figure 1 Team Planeteers inside the MDRS Hab

Research conducted at MDRS by Crew 174:


  1. Characterizing the transference of Human Commensal Bacteria and Developing Zoning Methodology for Planetary Protection

The first part of this research aims at using metagenomics analysis to assess the degree to which human associated (commensal) bacteria could potentially contaminate Mars during a crewed mission to the surface. This involved collection of environmental soil samples during the first week of the mission from outside the MDRS airlock door, at MDRS airlock door and at increasing distances from the habitat (including a presumably uncontaminated site) in order to characterise transference of human commensal bacteria into the environment and swabbing of interior surfaces carried out towards the end of the mission within the MDRS habitat to characterize the commensal biota likely to be present in a crewed Mars mission. In the interests of astrobiology, however, if microbial life is discovered on the Martian surface during a crewed mission, or at any point after a crewed mission, it will be crucial to be able to reliably distinguish these detected cells from the microbes potentially delivered by the human presence.

The second part of the research aims at testing the hypothesis that human-associated microbial contamination will attenuate with increasing distance from the Hab, thus producing a natural zoning.  The previous studies hypothesize that there may be relatively greater contamination along directions of the prevailing wind because windborne particles or particle aggregates allow attachment of microbes and help to shelter them against various environmental challenges, e.g. desiccation, ultraviolet light, etc. Efforts are afoot to try to develop a concept of zones around a base where the inner, highest contamination zone is surrounded by zones of diminishing levels of contamination occur and in which greater Planetary Protection stringency must be enforced (Criswell et al 2005).  As part of that concept, an understanding of what the natural rate of microbial contamination propagation will be is essential.

a. Sample collection process:

Two sets of samples were collected as the analysis will be carried out at two different stages.

i. Samples of the soil outside the MDRS were collected aseptically into sterile Falcon tubes. Sampling sites included immediately outside the habitat air lock (with presumably the highest level of human-associated bacteria from the crew quarters), at increasing distances from the airlock along a common EVA route (to track decrease in transference with distance), and at a more remote site that ideally has not previously been visited by an EVA (to provide the negative control of background microbiota in the environment).

Figure 2 Soil Samples collected at increasing distances from the Airlock


ii. Various surfaces within the crew quarters were swabbed using a standard sterile swab kit to collect microbes present from the course of normal human habitation. These included door handles, walls, table surface, airlock handles, staircase, working table, computer. This did not expose the science team to additional infection risks (such as not swabbing toilets).

Figure 3 (a) Sterile Swab Kit (b) Internal swab collection (working table)

Sampling locations within the habitat and soil sampling sites during EVA were recorded by photographs and written notes. After collection, the samples were refrigerated at the MDRS Science lab, and then returned with the crew to London for storage and analysis. This is analogous to medical samples being collected from ISS astronauts and returned to Earth for lab analysis. The molecular biology sample analysis and data interpretation, including all the metagenomic analyses to identify bacterial strains present, will be conducted by Lewis Dartnell in collaboration with John Ward. The collaboration agreement is already in place and lab space and resources confirmed. The analysis is carried out in two different stages:


a. Stage 1 Analysis:

The first set of samples will be tested using off-the-shelf simple tests for the presence or absence of human associated microbes, namely coliforms.  These are simple to use and give a yes/no answer, so plots will be made of yes/no results with distance from the hab in different directions.  This could be correlated with prevailing wind directions and/or to show common human pathways from the hab versus directions in which people typically don’t go.

b. Stage 2 Analysis:

The second set of samples (internal swabs) will not be cultured or otherwise processed back on Earth (as culturing of human commensurate and environmental microorganisms could present a biological hazard to the MDRS astronauts). All sampling materials and storage containers were provided by the study, and thus will require no consumables or other resources from the MDRS. All sample collection pots and sampling materials will be removed by the study scientists, and the sampling process itself (small soil samples and surface swabs) will not impact the MDRS habitat or its natural environment.


  1. Zoning and sample collection Protocols for Planetary Protection


Planetary protection is one of the major subjects that require immediate attention before humans travel to Mars and beyond. MDRS being one of the closest analogues on Earth with respect to dry environment on Mars was the best site to perform and simulate issues related to planetary protection. Our work on planetary protection was to simulate zoning protocol to be used to manage relative degrees of acceptable contamination surrounding MDRS and implementation of sample protocols while at EVA’s for soil sample collection, geological study and during hab support activities etc.


a. Zoning protocols for crew exploration around MDRS

During the mission, we extensively studied the zoning protocol in and around the hab and how contamination issues on Mars can be restricted.  On the first day on ‘Mars’ we used the geographical map of MDRS exploration area to formulate and characterize zones around the hab and the strategy for sample collection.

i. Zone: 1 (Area within Hab) – This area is believed to be the most contaminated with the human microbes.

ii. Zone 2 (About 20 meters from the hab) – This is the area where most of the hab support systems and rovers are parked. This zone is supposed to have less microbial contamination than hab but higher than Zone 3 and 4.

iii. Zone 3 (Beyond 20 meters but within 300 meters around the hab) – This area is considered to have regular human presence during an EVA. Soil samples of Zone 2a and 2b were collected for future analysis in lab to study human microbial contamination.

iv. Zone 4 (Special Region) – This area was considered to have insufficient remote sensing data to determine the level of biological potential. This area was marked as no EVA zone and can only be studied in detail by remote sensing data using satellites or drones.


b. Sample collection protocols

The crew studied the sample collection protocol requirements for all the activities such as soil sample collection, geological study and during the operations of hab support systems etc., this was to avoid forward and back contamination.  The protocols were planned to be initiated from the time a crew member leaves the airlock for EVA and until he/she returns from the EVA to Hab. During the EVA, the crew noted every experiment procedure and made sure there was no breach in spacesuits and no human microbial contamination during soil collection. The tools used for the soil collection were required to be completely cleaned and sterilized. The study of rocks on site during an EVA was one of the major challenges where it was realized that special tools were required to pick the rock samples without getting them exposed to spacesuit gloves. Using only gloves to pick rock samples could also rupture the spacesuits and thus there could be a decompression issue. Even with a detailed geological exploration map of MDRS and high resolution satellite imagery, it was noted that the use of drones can drastically reduce the human EVAs and lots of geological and terrain information can be obtained in a shot span of time. This step would heavily reduce the human EVA and thereby contamination issues to special regions where there could be a possibility of having a biological activity. Water, a major carrier of human microbes is proposed to be within the structures of hab. During the simulation, the crew made sure that there was no water spillage outside the hab.


  1. Development of New Techniques to Enhance Plant Growth in a Controlled Environment

A crewed mission to the Mars demands sufficient food supplies during the mission. Thus cultivation of plants and crops play an important role to create a habitat on Mars. There are some factors to be considered before cultivating crops on the Martian surface. First, the planet’s position in the solar system, Mars receives about 2/3rd of sunlight as compared to the Earth that plays a vital role in crop cultivation. Second, the type of soil used for crop cultivation should to be rich in various nutrients. Since the MDRS site is considered as one of the best analogue sites on Earth to simulate Mars environment, the experimental results of plant growth at MDRS was considered for this research. This research aims at growing fenugreek (crop that is rich in nutrients and grows within the mission time) to determine the effect of Vitamin D on the growth.

At MDRS, the fenugreek seeds were allowed to germinate for 2 days. In the mean-time, an EVA was carried out to collect soil from different parts on ‘Mars’. The soil was collected based on the colour and texture. Five types of soil, white (01), red (02), clay (03) coloured soil, course grey soil (04) and sand from river bed (05) were collected. Two set of experiment pots were made as shown in the Figure 4. Each had 15 pots, 10 pots with Earth soil (ES) labelled with different levels of Vitamin D (0- 0.9) and 5 pots of Mars soil (MS) labelled according to the area of the soil collected (0-5). One set of 15 pots was placed in the Green hab and the other in the controlled environment (under the Misian Mars lamp) after planting the well germinated seeds. The plants were watered twice a day in order to maintain the moisture in the soil.

Figure 4 Experimental Setup with Earth and ‘Mars’ Soil

The temperature and humidity levels were monitored twice a day throughout the mission both in the green hab and the controlled environment (Misian Mars Lamp). It was noted that there was a steep increase in the temperature in the green hab as the outside temperature was high that inturn decreased the humidity in the green hab drastically. The situation was managed by switching on the cooler and then by monitoring the heater thermostat. The plants were watered with specific measurement of Vitamin D every day. The experiment was successfully completed by monitoring the growth regularly, it is evident that humidity and temperature impacts the growth of plants. The plants in the green hab showed more growth of primary root than the secondary, the leaves were normal in colour and growth. In the controlled environment, the root growth was fast, the plants developed many secondary roots in few days. The plants looked healthy, the leaves were dark green and bigger than the ones in the green hab as seen in Figure 5.

Figure 5 Plant growth in (a) Misian Mars Lamp (b) GreenHab

In conclusion, the graphs were plotted for the root growth for the Earth Soil with Vitamin D in the green hab and the controlled environment from Sol 08 to Sol 13. The graphs indicated that the low level of Vitamin D (0.1) enhances root growth in the green hab. Under misian Mars lamp, the growth rate is high for ES 0 (without Vitamin D).   Readings tabulated for the Mars soil was plotted on daily basis but, after few days it was noted that there was neglibile growth in the Mars soil. The graphs plotted for few days are as shown in the Figure 6.

Figure 6 Root growth of seedlings (a) Misian Mars Lamp (b) GreenHab


  1. Study of magnetic susceptibility of the rocks and their comparison


The primary objective was to study the magnetic susceptibility and magnetic minerals of the rock samples collected and compare them with multi-spectral remote sensing data back in the lab. MDRS contains a range of Mars analogue features relevant for geological studies. It contains a series of sediments derived from weathering and erosion from marine to fluvial and lacustrine deposits containing also volcanic ashes (Foing et al. 2011). With the preliminary understanding of the MDRS geographical exploration area and identification of potential targets, the lithology can help us decipher the structural history of the region, with understanding of genesis of such rock types and aid exploration efforts. The previous studies done at MDRS reveals that the magnetic susceptibility did not vary significantly near the Hab. Hence, the locations of various geological formations far away from the hab were selected to study the distribution of magnetic minerals. The selected locations for the same were sedimentary outcrops, cattle grid, burpee dinosaur quarry, widow’s peak and near the Motherload of concretions.

We found layers of horizontally bedded sandstone and conglomerates, sandstones and siltstones. Some of them seem to have inverse grading which could have been created by the debris flow. Gypsum and lichens were spotted around the area of sedimentary crops. In the next visit to Motherload of concretions, we have seen a variety of lichens: yellow, black, orange and grey. And in the Cattle grid region, colors of mudstone and conglomerates bands of rich cream, brown, yellow and red were found. The basalt samples were collected from the gravel in the cattle grid region and from the URC north site (porphyr) to be studied in the lab. Near the widow’s peak, shales were found along with gypsum shining bright, distributed around that area. Most of the region was covered mostly with loose soil. The locations of all the samples collected from different regions were marked with the help of GPS. The magnetic susceptibility of rock samples were measured and documented them using the magnetometer in the science lab. Inspection of samples was possible with the microscope at the science dome, with 10X zoom as seen in Figure 4. They need to be studied in thin sections for better understanding and will be done on Earth under the guidance of specialists.

Figure 7 (a) Porphyr under microscope (b) Siltstone under the microscope


  1. Drone Experiment

‘Mars’ has a harsh environment that risks Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA). The main objectives of the drone experiment were:

a. To ease EVAs by understanding the scenario of a region that is hard to access by rover/ATV.

b. To simulate the application of drone in search of a crew member during an emergency situation and during loss of communication.

c. Video making and photography for outreach activities.

The first objective to make use of drone in isolated regions was successfully executed on Sol 07. Since it was the first trial, the drone was operated in beginner’s mode restricting the field of operation to 30m range. The crew was looking out for soil samples, when confronted by a medium size hill the drone was sent out to check for soil sample availability on the other side. The region looked to be same and it was easier for the crew to take a decision to abort the mission and move to a different location.

Execution date:                Sol 07 (Earth date: 02/05/2017)

GPS Satellites:   13

Flight mode:                     Beginner’s mode of max 62 FT altitude and within 30m range.


The second objective was to simulate an emergency situation when one of the crew lost communication with other member during EVAs. The beginner mode range was too less and hence the drone was operated in advanced mode to search the missing crew member. The mission was successful in identifying the crew member.

Execution:         Sol 11 (Earth date: 02/09/2017)

GPS Satellites:   14

Flight mode:                     Advanced mode with 121 FT altitude and 500m range.


Figure 8 Drone Searching a Crew Member


Several photographs/videos were captured as per the planned outreach activity.

Mars Society News

Panel to Discuss STEM Education & Pathway to Red Planet at 2016 Mars Society Convention

cuSince its founding, the Mars Society has consistently been a major advocate of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, viewing this as a critical need if humanity is ever to begin seriously exploring the solar system, including the planet Mars, and moving in the direction of becoming a multi-planetary species.

As part of this, the Mars Society has organized a special panel discussion on the subject of “STEM Education & the Pathway to the Human Exploration & Settlement of Mars” for the 19th Annual International Mars Society Convention, scheduled for September 22-25, 2016 at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Participants in the STEM panel discussion will include:

Jennifer Mandel, Director, STEM Programs, Lockheed Martin Corporation
Jennifer Mandel is responsible for leading Lockheed Martin’s STEM philanthropic giving and employee volunteerism. Part of her portfolio includes leading Generation Beyond, a program to spark student interest in STEM and inspire the next generation of astronauts and engineers. Prior to this, Ms. Mandel managed strategic communications for the transportation solutions line of business within Lockheed Martin Information Systems & Global Services.

Alyssa Carson, Teen-Age Astronaut-in-Training & STEM Advocate
Alyssa Carson has dreamed about being an astronaut visiting the planet Mars since a young age. A regular participant in NASA space camps and other astronaut-related training programs, Ms. Carson hopes to be among the first persons on the Red Planet in the 2030s. She is also an in-demand public speaker at schools and conferences regarding the importance of STEM education.

Bob Barboza, STEM Advocate & Founder, Kids Talk Radio Science
A former high school teacher, Bob Barboza is a major proponent of STEM education and space exploration for young students through a variety of related initiatives. Mr. Barboza founded and hosts a popular online podcast called Kids Talk Radio Science and established the Barboza Space Center in the Los Angeles area, a teaching and learning platform for future astronauts, engineers and scientists interested in exploring the planet Mars.

Nicole Willett, Panel Moderator & Mars Society Education Director
Nicole Willett is the long-serving Director of Education for the Mars Society and a member of the organization’s Steering Committee. Currently an astronomy instructor at Benedictine Military School in Savannah, Georgia, Ms. Willett authors the Mars Society’s Red Planet Pen blog and serves as a regular contributor to many science-related magazine articles, books and online news sources. In addition, she is an Astronomy Professor at Savannah College of Art & Design and is pursuing her Master’s degree in Astronomy.

For more information about the 2016 International Mars Society Convention, including registration details, a list of confirmed speakers and hotel accommodations in the Washington, D.C. area, please click here. The full program itinerary, including the date/time of the STEM panel discussion, is scheduled for release next week via the Mars Society web site (www.marssociety.org).