The challenges facing any prospective Mars colonists are hard to predict, but a team from the University of Saskatchewan is hoping to get a better idea.
The U of S Space Design Team has entered this year’s University Rover Challenge. Held in Hanksville, Utah from May 29–31, the competition has teams building remote-controlled rovers to face a variety of realistic tasks that Mars colonists might have a rover perform.
The rover must be capable of driving over the rough Utah terrain, collecting and delivering equipment as well as gathering surface samples.
USST President Justin Gerein said this may be the toughest year in the contest’s history.
“The fourth challenge is to perform equipment maintenance. This has included wiring or flipping switches in the past, however this year they are making it more challenging and expecting participants to be able to put together PVC tubing,” Gerein said.
The rover operator will not be able to see the field during the contest, instead having to rely on the rover’s cameras and other sensors.
Adding to the difficulty, this is the USST’s first year participating in the competition. Gerein said many of the competing teams have entered several times already.
While other teams are also first time entrants, the secretive nature of the contest is adding to the USST’s concerns.
“While we are on the same playing field as these teams, there is limited knowledge of their work,” Gerein said.
“We feel confident and are optimistic in our design. Of course we feel our rover will perform well … The goal is first to have a rover that works reliably and can complete all of the challenges without failure.”
The group’s other members come from many different colleges. Engineers, business students, computer scientists and biology majors can all be found rubbing shoulders at the team’s workspace in the Engineering Building.
An engineering student, Gerein said the shared interest in space science, the passion for working on cutting edge technology and the desire to perform well has brought together a team from a variety of disciplines.
“I would say the biggest challenge is not the diversity of team members, but that our team is composed of students. Ultimately, our studies and success in classes has to come before the competition.”
Physiology student Chit Singh said there is a lot of interdisciplinary collaboration involved in the USST’s projects despite the team being primarily composed of engineering and computer science students. The team also has geology, chemistry and toxicology students.
“Although most of its projects usually conform to the aforementioned disciplines, I think students of most colleges would be able to meaningfully participate in the USST,” Singh said.
Singh described his work with Alex Chen, a biology student and member of the USST, as being focused on infrared spectroscopy — a process normally restricted to laboratory conditions. The USST device will be far more compact and mobile than a typical spectropjometer and will be used to detect organic material.
Alex Chen said the USST’s biology crew has been able to apply their in-class skills while working on a compact way to identify life on other planets.
“It’s been a fantastic experience to sit down and finally apply knowledge gained in a real world environment,” Chen said.
However, Singh and Chen remain skeptical on the topic of colonizing Mars.
“This is a very long term goal and not something that is going to happen in the next decade. If we look at what we’ve done so far, we’ve barely broken the boundaries of Earth in terms of manned space flight. People have lived on the [International Space Station] for months at a time but they’re never far from home, relative to Mars,” Chen said.
He added that in addition to problems of providing oxygen and growing food, the distance from Earth is an issue all on its own.
“For a person on the ISS, backup supplies are at most a few days away. If anything happens to you on another planet, it would be months or even years before you would get help of any kind.”
Singh shares this view, saying that establishing a colony on Mars seems futile when explorations of the planet have only just begun — the unmanned rover Curiosity landed on the Red Planet only 18 months ago.
Both of the USST’s biologists seem confident about a future colony on Mars but remain focused on the nearest feat: the competition.