Come to ANU, Go to Mars

Students interested in the engineering, psychology, and drama of space travel can be involved in planning human trips to Mars through university collaborations with Mars Society Australia (MSA). The ACT branch of MSA held their second meeting of the year in the Brian Kenyon Student Space on last Thursday evening.

 Dr. Jonathan Clarke, President of MSA ACT, explained the importance of space travel by recalling the iconic “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8. “Where would the global peace or environmental movements be without that image?” Clarke stated. Clarke highlighted the interest in Mars by explaining the planet’s greater Earth-like qualities than those of the moon, and how Mars is more hospitable to humans than our other neighbour, Venus.

 MSA is a non-profit organization with the goal of encouraging public involvement in Mars research and conducting Mars exploration with private funding. MSA built Mars-Oz, a research station to simulate the Martian landscape in Arkaroola, SA, where researchers can test equipment or methodologies intended for use on Mars. In contrast to other organizations with Mars goals, including Mars One (four people chosen via reality TV for one-way immigration to Mars in 2023) and Inspiration Mars (a flyby for two people of Venus and Mars in 2021), MSA’s approach focuses on Australian scientific capabilities and the preparation necessary to make human exploration of Mars’s surface possible.

ANU students are involved in an ongoing project to build the Mars-Oz habitat where the first human visitors to Mars may live. Liam Waldron, Senior Lecturer in the Research School of Engineering, manages student involvement in the project through the ENGN4221 subject. A new cohort of students collaborates every year to design portions of the habitat and present their work to industry professionals. In separate projects, students also have access to use satellite dishes housed at the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Tracking Station for other research projects.

 

Outside of ANU, anyone interested in building unmanned rovers can become involved with Steven Hobbs, a MSA member who leads the Mars O’ Bot project. Hobbs builds functional rovers using off-the-shelf materials and open-source software. The goal is to affordably build a rover capable of the necessary physical and scientific requirements of Mars exploration. Mars O’ Bot is currently Hobbs’s own one-person operation within MSA, so anyone interested in building and testing rovers is encouraged to get involved!

The MSA meeting emphasized the variety of interests related to space travel, including the psychology of small groups of astronauts working long term under high stress conditions. Dr. Kate Reynolds, Associate Professor in the Research School of Psychology, became involved in the psychology of space travel via a former student’s Ph.D. thesis. Reynolds spoke about the current emphasis within astronaut preparation on assessing each individual’s personality, a method that fails to recognize the complexity of group interaction. This work also applies to non-astronauts: small group psychology projects might observe isolated research teams in the Arctic or submarine crews.

In addition to the science of travel to and life on Mars, MSA has become involved in an independent film project titled The Mission, led by Douglas Kirk and Andrew Marriott and supported in-part by ScreenACT. The filmmakers originally contacted MSA for consultation on the scientific accuracy of their script. “We don’t want the audience to say, ‘That couldn’t happen!’ because that ruins the drama of the script,” Kirk said. The consultation has grown into collaboration, with Kirk and Marriott proposing to build their film set as a non-functional but accurate replica of the astronaut living habitat being designed by Mars-Oz. After finishing the film, the set could be useful for television programs in the style of Discovery Channel showcasing the psychology or physiology of humans in space, or for psychology studies.

 Anyone interested in attending the next MSA ACT meeting or becoming involved in any of the wide variety of projects should e-mail act@marssociety.org or find the MSA Facebook page.