Journalist Report – February 9th

Sol 9: Focus on: Mars’ Atmosphere – LOAC, Mega-ARES, Purple Air, and weather station

Author: Pierre Fabre

Hi everyone! Welcome back to this new report! Today is a new episode of “Focus on”, our format in which we talk about the experiments we brought with us on Mars. In this episode, we are going to talk about several experiments we perform for the French center of scientific research that aim at gathering data about the air on Mars. This will surely be very interesting!

But before, as usual, let’s talk about what happened during this Sol 9 on Mars!

I have to talk to you about something. At MDRS, the toilet goes directly into a tank. One of the missions of Francois, our engineer, is to empty that tank when it is full. I can assure you that this is not a pleasure at all and for all of us, he is kind of the hero of this station. Since the beginning of the mission, we’ve noticed that he had to empty that tank way too frequently. This morning, the tank was full again and with the help of our Commander, they decided to finally address the problem.

They discovered that there was a solid part (yes, this is disgusting) at the bottom of the tank and that was the reason why the tank was getting full so fast. We will hopefully now be able to find a solution to this issue knowing the origin! We really owe them one on this one. When we will be back on Earth, we will definitely offer them a good Earthly burger to thank them for their courage and their devotion.

The EVA of this morning was dedicated to my experiment of 3D mapping with drones. Without spoiling what will be said in a future episode of « Focus on », this experiment aims, in short, at showing that having a 3D map while preparing your EVA’s itinerary makes you safer during the EVA and less tired at the end of it. Now that we know that drones can fly on Mars thanks to Ingenuity, it can be interesting to question their usefulness. A potential use can be to avoid Marsonauts taking useless risks or losing energy in vain on a hard path if a better path can be found by a drone.

For that purpose, I will compare how my crewmates perform at reaching the summit of North Ridge regarding whether or not they had the 3D map during their preparation. I already said too much but it will be clearer in the « Focus on » episode so don’t miss it!

So, as I was saying, this morning we went to North Ridge and reached its summit for the first time. It was a great moment and we were really happy to contemplate the Hab from the top of the same Ridge we see from the kitchen’s window. Tomorrow, the crew members that stayed at the Hab this morning will do the same ascent of North Ridge and then I will be able to analyse the data from the whole crew.

This afternoon, after all the energy he lost in the toilet’s tank this morning, Francois, our Engineer, and friendly neighbourhood hero, still managed to find the motivation to work on our spacesuits. In fact, some crew members noticed two or three days ago that the air cooling in their helmets was not as strong as at the beginning of the mission.

This can be a huge problem for physically demanding EVAs like the one we did this morning because during the effort the helmet fogs up and you lose your visibility. Losing your visibility means you might fail to see a rock on the floor and fall. I can assure you that falling during an EVA, with a heavy spacesuit on your back and the risk of breaking your helmet, is all you want to avoid!

After some tests, he discovered that the issue came from the batteries. Since yesterday, he has been performing tests on the batteries and on their chargers to find what was the issue and how to fix it. He is exchanging with the staff of the MDRS that gives him advice on what to do regarding the results of the tests he performed. He is getting close and we know he will succeed soon! Francois will soon have the opportunity to talk to you directly about his work at MDRS in an episode of « Interview with » dedicated to the Engineer so don’t miss it!

But now it is time to talk about science, it is time for the « Focus on »!

“-Ok Clément, so first, why did we bring those experiments with us?

-Well, we’re lucky enough at MDRS that the terrain and environment we work in resembles, in many ways, things we can expect to find on Mars. In particular, what we have here is a particularly arid environment, with lots of dust that can be kicked up by winds. So, this is a good testbed for the study of atmospheric phenomena we could expect to see there.

In particular, one of the atmospheric events that can have a big impact on a Martian mission is dust storms. They can get extremely large, and have an effect on the efficiency of solar panels, visibility on terrain, or also long-distance communications. This is why developing tools to study the presence and characteristics of this dust in the air, and the properties of the atmosphere during those events can be very useful for ensuring the safety of the first people to set foot on Mars. This is the main purpose of these experiments.

-Ok that’s cool! What is LOAC?

LOAC stands for Light Optical Aerosol Counter. This is a piece of equipment that was developed in an atmospheric sciences laboratory in Orléans, France, for the purpose of counting particles of dust in the air, their sizes, and the flow – this is very helpful to study the composition of dust storms. It’s been used in numerous campaigns not only on the ground but also in the upper atmosphere on high altitude balloons, and it’s even planned for a launch on a nanosatellite to ensure it is space ready for a potential launch to another planet!

-Ok, that first one is cool! And what is Mega-ARES?

-Mega-ARES is an instrument that measures the electric field in the air near the ground. There are many atmospheric events that can modify the electric field, and dust particles rubbing on one another can create electric charges in the air that can be measured by this very sensitive equipment. In the dust storms of Mars, we’re studying the possibility that large amounts of friction can cause electric currents in the air. So, when particles are heavy in the air and hit each other between the large antenna of the tool and the ground, or hit the antenna directly, it gets detected. While LOAC measures the types of particles in the air, Mega-ARES studies the influence these particles have on the low atmosphere.

Mega-ARES is the bigger, Earth-primed brother of Micro-ARES, which was a payload on the Schiaparelli lander designed by the European Space Agency, and that was scheduled to land on Mars around 10 years ago. Unfortunately, the lander failed when arriving on the Red Planet, and the researchers are hard at work trying to get it on a mission in the future. In the meantime, tests like those done at MDRS help gather data that shows how useful this sort of tool could be on Mars.

-Those experiments were both brought by previous Supaéro crews but this year we have a newcomer. What is Purple Air?

-PurpleAir is a tool for measuring air quality – this means it detects some particles that could be linked to human activity. It’s a very useful extra tool to have all the details we need for the other experiments. Both of them work better far away from human influence and will gain valuable data from knowing more about the composition of some of the particles in the air.

-And why is the weather station so important?

-The weather station is a great tool for double-checking our data – many experiments do their own measurements of temperatures and other data, but getting this specific information twice helps us make sure that there are no issues with the equipment. In addition to this, knowing wind speed and direction are important pieces of data to correlate with the measurements from the tool, for the obvious reason that high winds create dust storms, which are the important things we’re studying with these experiments.

As an aside, the station directly emits data to our receivers in the station, which helps us get live data about the outside conditions – and that’s been particularly helpful for those few times with high winds where, unfortunately, that station got knocked over!”

Okay, that’s it for this episode of “Focus on”! I hope you enjoyed it and that you learned something! I can’t wait for the next episode to tell you more about our experiments!