Journalist Report Sol 10 – 21st March

Slowly but surely, our stay at the MDRS is coming to an end. What seemed like a daunting two weeks at the beginning has passed right by us, and we are now only two days away from the moment our shuttle will take off from Mars and head back to Earth. Our experiments are slowly coming to an end, and we can all feel the end approaching.

Our commander, Maximilien, has been the cornerstone of our project since the beginning, a year ago, when we first began searching for funds and planning this very unique voyage. He has managed the team’s efforts with great precision, while at the same time giving more of himself than anyone else for the success of this project!

He is an industrial engineering graduate currently pursuing a PhD in organic synthesis (more specifically cyclopentane and 1,4-diene formation), and his experiment at the MDRS was centred on the characterization of physico-chemical properties of soil. His plan was to measure different characteristics of soils sampled at various locations on the Martian landscape, testing them for the factors which are most important for plant growth. These included pH, conductivity, B, total N, P, ions and macroscopic texture. Some of these factors are easy to measure with the basic instruments available locally, others with the spectrophotometer that we brought with us, and some needed more complex methods, requiring rare chemicals and solvents. These supplies were on the same shipment as Ariane’s culture media, which had an accident on its way to Mars and had to reverse directions and head back to Earth. This prevented Max from performing some of his planned experiments, but nonetheless, he has managed to isolate significant results with what was available locally. Still, this has freed up a bit of time for him, and so he has been able to share his extensive knowledge of chemistry to help others with their experiments – Mario to test the conductivity and pH of his hydroponic solutions, pH testing for Fred’s and Ariane’s bacteria, and calibration curves for Martin. As so, his time has been well used despite the unexpected outcome of his experiment!

Tomorrow, we will celebrate Michael’s birthday with an EVA in the morning, and some cake and board games or a movie in the evening! He sure would have liked some good beer on the side, but unfortunately there is a very strict policy on alcohol on Mars – it is completely forbidden! He will have to wait until we get back to Earth to enjoy a cold one..

Journalist Report

Life in our small Martian community is passing quicker than most of us probably thought it would. When you realize you’re about to spend two entire weeks locked in a cylinder of 8 meters of diameter (with a common room of just 25 square meters), it is hard not to feel a bit of anxiety. In the MDRS, the space is located so that all the rooms give directly on the common room, with very little privacy. The ground floor is entirely dedicated to engineering. The outside parts are either reserved to scientific work or are too dangerous to stay in due to cosmic radiation. It is therefore almost impossible to ever be alone. For most people, this is a recipe for disaster. Our crew, however, has been quite lucky. We knew we worked well together as a group, and enjoyed each other’s presence during our brief meetings over the past year. Nothing, however, guaranteed that these feelings would pass the test of time (and in our case, the test of proximity) – but they did! Over the past ten days, we have functioned quite well as a group – there have been no fights, few tensions and many moments of laughter, and so, the time has passed us much quicker than we had thought possible.

One could say that our days at the MDRS all closely resembled each other, and this isn’t necessarily untrue. A typical day like today started with breakfast, another EVA for half the team, and a combination of scientific and academic work. Lunch, delicious as always, was once again cooked by Ariane from the dehydrated ingredients we are now well used to. It is always surprising to see how this unappetizing looking powder magically changes into the food we know so well from back on Earth. We always end up eating just like at home thanks to our dedicated cooks!

Time has indeed passed quick, but we still have work to do. Experiments are not finished and we still have three entire days to go! Thankfully we have received a brand new food shipment from earth, as well as a fresh harvest of tomatoes and greens from the GreenHab, so we are ready to go!

Journalist Report – March 18th

The Mars Desert Research Station is an ever-expanding project. Initially composed of only the main Hab and a GreenHab, new modules have since been added. A solar observatory (the Musk Observatory), an automatic night telescope, solar panels, the Repair and Assembly Module, as well as the Science Dome which has allowed the laboratory to be moved from the restricted lower deck of the Hab to a brand-new area with lots of space to work. Among our researchers working in the Science Dome are Ariane and Fred, both experts in microbiology.

Ariane is a molecular biology graduate, currently beginning her doctorate in the field of genetics. Her experiment, despite being centred on microbiology, is of great importance to the whole crew: she is making Martian bread! Indeed, we may imagine a situation in which we would run out of yeast on Mars, leaving us unable to make one of our favourite staple foods. To keep the bread production sustainable, we would need to get the yeast, lactobacillus, from elsewhere, and that is exactly what Ariane is doing: she is isolating it from human saliva! This is no easy task. First, she sampled saliva and cultivated the many microorganisms it contains in Petri dishes. These Petri dishes were supposed to be filled with what we call a selective medium – a substance which only allows for the growth of a specific microorganism, in this case, lactobacillus. Unfortunately, the shipment from Earth which carried this medium has had an accident, and hasn’t been able to reach us in time. Ariane therefore had to rely on her knowledge of microbiology to manually isolate and cultivate only the required yeast, and no other micro-organism – no easy task, given their very close resemblance! She is currently very close to achieving her goal, and the rest of the crew very close to eating our first true Martian bread (made, in part, from spit)!

Fred, on the other hand, is a biotech and pharma graduate, currently pursuing a doctorate in bacteriology. His fist experiment, concerning plant culture in Martian regolith, has been covered below. In addition to this, he is also working on a microbiology experiment, aiming to evaluate the survival capacity of bacteria in the harsh conditions that exist on Mars. He is using the bacterium bacillus subtilis, a very common microorganism, and placing it in small quartz vials (a material which allows UV rays to pass unhindered), in different conditions around the station to see how many of them will survive. At the end of the experiment, these bacteria will be counted and their numbers compared to a standard sample which will have been staying in the safety of the Science Dome. This experiment is especially interesting because it sets out to answer many questions about the ability of earth-born bacteria, which are therefore adapted to earth-like conditions, to survive in an environment that is literally alien and extremely aggressive. If conclusive, a positive result could mean that the Martian environment is suitable to harbour Earth’s microbes, which could mean many things for agriculture, human life, development, terraforming, and generally our future on the Red Planet.

Journalist Report – March 17th

Apart from each crew member’s experiment, there are many things to do at the MDRS. Cooking, cleaning and the usual chores are of course part of the job, like in any shared living space. But the MDRS being quite a special place to live, as it is, after all, located on Mars, there are additional and essential tasks that need to be completed every day. Taking care of the GreenHab and its plants is an essential one – indeed, they are our life support, producing both our food and our oxygen, and they therefore require exceptional care. However, the MDRS is a complex system, with many variables. If one of them fails, the whole station’s well-being is compromised. The role of the crew engineer, Bastien, is therefore also essential : every day, he checks all the systems, machines, reservoirs, electrical devices, batteries and engines, inside and outside the station, that allow its optimal functioning. His is truly a full-time job. And despite this, Bastien has been involved in quite a serious and time-consuming project of aerial 3D cartography. With his drone, and a computer program designed for this purpose, he has been criss-crossing rectangular areas of terrain, taking dozens of pictures from all angles, which are then automatically recombined in a tedious hours-long process, giving a 3D map of the area, which can then be assembled with surrounding maps to create maps of whole regions.

Michael, our XO and an operations research specialist, has also been working quite hard : his main project concerns something called robust planning under uncertainty, which means that he has been working on a dynamic, adaptable, and predictive schedule for the whole crew. This planning program, coded on his computer, has been designed by Michael from scratch and is still getting improved day by day. Indeed, the point of such a program is to adapt the schedule to unpredicted (and unpredictable) events that slow down or accelerate a particular crew member’s experiment. Since all experiments are related in some way (by equipment, place and/or time), a change in one experiment will often impact many other experiments – this makes for quite a complex system, which needs to be updated daily. Michael has therefore been taking daily notes of our progress, and integrating them into his program to generate the next days’ improved schedule.

As you may think, Michael is quite the computer enthusiast. You can imagine his delight when he realised that the small remote-controlled linux-powered rover called Phoenix, made by members of the NorCal Mars Society, didn’t work and needed troubleshooting. Yesterday evening, he got down to understanding where the problem was, and started working in a trance-like state, measuring voltages, connecting cables and reading and writing code that seems like gibberish to the untrained eye. In the end, he understood that the problem was two-fold : on the one hand, the rover’s internal clock was unsynchronized with the clock of the computer which controlled it, a simple but hard to detect error. On the other hand, there were some battery issues which needed to be resolved, and after 24 hours, the rover was finally set free in front of the base this afternoon, where it performed some test loops.

We are now fully equipped, with Bastien’s drone and NorCal’s rover, to inspect the station from the outside without having to go through the tedious process of getting fully suited up and going through a decompression period in the exit vault. Another step forward for our Martian colony!

Journalist Report – March 16th

The MDRS’ GreenHab is an extremely lush, green place. Filled with large amounts of tomato plants, as well as many other plants in smaller amounts, it is an oasis of life in the middle of the Martian desert. The tomatoes have been yielding generously – currently over a hundred cherry tomatoes are on the path of ripening, soon to be ready to be enjoyed by the crew, and other vegetables and leafy greens are growing well. However, all the plants are growing in soil, a medium that has had to be brought over from earth at large expenses. Our two botanists, Frederic and Mario, are both working on improving the disadvantages that come from soil as a medium for growth. On the one hand, Frederic is focusing on growing plants in Martian regolith (the dusty, iron-rich sands that make up most of Mars’ surface and give it its red colour). His research focuses on the advantages of different types of regolith, mixed in various amounts, with or without HydroGel. HydroGel is a man-made substance, an acrylate polymer, which has the incredible propriety of being able to absorb over 100 times its own weight in water, and release it slowly. This is extremely useful in dry climates back on Earth, as well as on Mars, where water is extremely precious.

On the other hand, Mario is working on a project that is somewhat the opposite : a hydroponics system. In such a system, plants are growing without soil, or any nutritive medium. Instead, their roots are hanging in a recirculated flow of nutrient-rich water, feeding them without wasting any water. In such a system, the nutrient composition of the water, as well as its pH and other factors, can be controlled with great precision to suit the plants. In addition to this, no water is wasted since it is recirculated, and the vertical format of the towers allows for minimal waste of space, also a precious resource in an extra-terrestrial station.

Both experiments are well underway! Fred has finished planting all his seeds and is waiting for them to sprout to start taking measures, whereas Mario has finished building the last of his three towers today.

All other experiments are also well underway ! Time is passing fast, and we are soon approaching the middle of our stay in the MDRS, even though we feel like we just got here. On Sunday, as a middle mark of our stay, we are planning a break day in our experiments, and a small celebration (with more cake!). In the meanwhile, we’ll keep on working hard, as there is no shortage of things to do here on Mars.

Journalist Report Sol 3 – March 14th

After a long day working on our experiments yesterday, we slept like babies. Our nights at the MDRS have generally been quite good, despite the thin mattresses and the out of control heating cycles, which have been pumping hot air into some rooms while others have been left to freeze. Well rested, we woke up in music again (Kanye West’s Mercy this time) and headed downstairs for a work out, this time lead by our biologist Mario who made sure no one missed a single push-up.

Immediately after, four members of our crew embarked on a EVA which took them to the northernmost part of the territory. In this zone, called The Moon, a wide variety of landscapes succeed each other rapidly, going from red striped hills to riverbeds and from sweeping white dunes to areas of sprawling Martian vegetation in just hundreds of meters, which makes for an extremely beautiful (and photogenic) ride. We therefore used this EVA to take more pictures, as well as to collect some samples of these varied soils for Max’s soil testing experiments.

At noon, we had one of the very earth-like, and therefore very delicious meals that Ariane has gotten us accustomed to. This time it was ‘hachis parmentier’, a specialty made with tomatoes, beef, potato mash and grated cheese, cooked in the oven until golden. All of this, of course, was made from freeze-dried foods, but Ariane’s magic touch made it feel right like home.

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated, as usual, to working on our experiments. Mario, with the much welcome help of Max, finished his first hydroponics tower in the greenhab, and planted mint and coriander in it. Sophie managed to find the source of parasites in her muon detector, while Martin dosed the API (active pharmaceutical ingredient) in a drug. On his side, Bastien made a 3D model of the Musk Observatory before embarking on the task of modelising the whole station.

By now, the crew has grown quite accustomed to the daily routine of the MDRS, and things are starting to work smoothly. Despite our confined environment, the mood is still great, and we are organising small events in the evenings, like a karaoke night, game nights, as well as round tables to talk about our experiments and our vision for the project.

See you tomorrow !


Journalist Report – March 13th

Journalist Report :

This morning, the whole crew managed to wake up at the same time, at a reasonable 8am. This process was helpfully catalysed by Sophie’s uplifting music played on the loudspeaker, and before we knew it, we were downstairs, jumping, squatting and crunching on the first of many morning cereal (which is already starting to run out..), half the crew got ready for an EVA, travelling far to the north workouts to come. After the usual morning, where Max took some soil samples and Bastien made his first (an successful) attempt at drone mapping a patch of land. Meanwhile, the other four members got a head start on their day, beginning work on their experiments. Fred weighed, mixed and potted his Martian soil samples, added HydroGel in half his samples and then planted basil, mint and radishes in them. Michael worked on perfecting his scheduling program, and Max started taking pH measures on soil. On the other hand, Mario made big advancements on his hydroponics project, nearing completion of the first tower, whereas Ariane isolated her first bacteria, worked on her sourdough, and made some more bread prototypes. All in all, our SOL 2 has been the most productive yet, and this has been felt in the crew : the mood is becoming more productive and more exciting as we realise that our projects are finally taking place in the way we wanted them to.

Journalist Report – March 12th


Here is today’s journalist report :

As the Martian sun rose on the Mars Desert Research Station, gently illuminating the station with its distant, white light, we woke up in our cramped dark rooms for our first real day on Mars. Like on any extra-terrestrial station, space is precious, and every area needs to be optimised to use as little of it as possible. Our rooms, while individual, are therefore barely a meter wide, and have beds that stack over or under the bed in the next room. In front of the doors of the rooms, the common room is where we spend most of our time, cooking, eating, relaxing and working on the central table and on the couches behind it.

While the common spaces are located on the first floor, all our utilities, including toilets and showers, as well as an engineering area and our exit vaults, are on the ground floor. In the back, a vault gives way to an over-ground tunnel which leads to the GreenHab, the Science Dome, and the Observatory. Apart from this, the station is completely isolated in a wide, hilly landscape coloured in red, brown and grey, and stretching as far as the eye can see.

It is in this epic landscape that we adventured on our first EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity), riding our electric rover and two ATVs north of the base, on an already well-travelled dirt road, up to the entrance of a small canyon on our right hand side. With a photographer and a drone operator, we adventured into the mouth of the canyon, the hot morning sun hitting us through our helmets. As we walked through the dry sands and rocks, we realised how difficult it is to explore our surroundings in full space gear, while carrying additional equipment and under a hot sun.

The remainder of the day was dedicated to the start of our
experiments. For the first time, we unwrapped our equipment, entered the science lab and the greenhouse, and began working on our respective experiments. Despite some delays in our supply of equipment, we have all been able to begin working on our projects. Our SOL1 (first day on Mars) has therefore been a success, and we can’t wait to continue it tomorrow.

Good evening,

Journalist Report – March 11th

As a warm midday sun baked the Martian regolith, the first four members of the crew 190 landed on a small patch of dirt, between a small hill and a trail in the red soil. As we exited our vehicle, we felt the soft martian soil beneath our boots and, walking around the hill, we laid our eyes on the station for the first time. Glowing in the strong martian sun, amplified by the complete silence surrounding us, the station appeared taller and wider than we had imagined it.

While we approached the door, a fleet of ATVs arrived in a cloud of dust behind us, carrying members of the previous crew. Our greetings were made simpler by our shared language – back on Earth, our two teams come from France and Belgium, two neighbouring countries that both speak French. Inside the station’s airlock, the cold dark air welcomed us to our new home, where we will spend the entire duration of our stay.

Inside, the rest of the French team welcomed us warmly. Soon enough, the other four members of our crew arrived, and we all ate together in the now cramped top floor of the station. We knew we would be alone again the next day, which made us enjoy the social mood even more, laughing and talking about our experiences on Mars.

In the morning, we were alone already – the French had taken off before the first light of day. With blueberry pancakes (made entirely from freeze-dried materials, of course) and powdered juice, our day of training began. After a tour of the station, a course in water supply management, a training in space suits, ATVs, mapping and teamwork, we were deemed ready to tackle the challenges of the next couple of weeks.

As the thick metal door closed on the outside world just before sunset, and we found ourselves locked in the station alone, we finally realised that this is it – this is what we’ve been waiting for – for over a year of preparation, training, and intense work, we had all imagined the moment when we would get here and live out our adventure.. and, now, as we sit inside the hab, I believe we only began to realise that our work had finally paid off, and that we truly are here now.

Mario Sundic

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