NASA prepares for Mars in a lava field in Iceland


Lambahraun lava field | Before the next mission to Mars in 2020, it is in the Icelandic lava fields that NASA prepares the continuation of the work initiated by the robot Curiosity which, since 2012, explores the red planet in search of signs of life.

Nestled at the foot of the Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest glacier in the west of the island, the Lambahraun lava field was for three weeks in July the playground of fifteen scientists and engineers sent by the American Space Agency.  

The volcanic island lost in the middle of the North Atlantic has something in it of Martian, with its black sand of basalt, its dunes shaped by the wind, black rocks and the summits of the surrounding mountains.  

“We get exactly the type of patterns and material transports that scientists want to see,” points out on the spot, cap screwed on the leader, Adam Deslauriers, space and instruction manager for Mission Control Space Services.  

This Ottawa-based Canadian company has been commissioned by NASA to test a prototype astronomical vehicle as part of the SAND-E (Semi-Autonomous Navigation for Detrital Environments) project.   

The small electric vehicle, white walls and orange chassis, moves with four-wheel drive, driven by two side motors, and work like a backhoe through 12 small car batteries concealed inside.  

“This rover is fundamentally indestructible,” says Adam Deslauriers. “Those we have on Mars and the Moon would be much more sensitive to Iceland’s environment and conditions: a lunar rover is absolutely unprepared for rain,” he says … in a downpour.  

Data classification 

Equipped with 3D sensors, a computer, a dual lens camera and scientific instruments, the remote-controlled rover or remote control moves its 570 kg to about 20 cm / s.  

“It’s only for security reasons, because it takes a long time for images to come back from another planet,” says Mark Vandermeulen, Robotics Engineer. It is however 2 to 4 times faster than the speed of driving on the red planet.  

The robot collects and classifies the data of its environment thanks to the imagery that it sends to the engineers who are in a trailer several hundred meters away from the machine.  

They then collect the data and transmit it to the scientists, who are confined to a tent attached to the trailer, all to simulate how information would be sent from Mars to Earth.  

The researchers then walk to the area studied by the astromobile, armed with a radiation surveyor, a double decimeter and sampling samples, because the prototype is not yet able to do it – but its final version will be able to collect and store samples.  

Similar territories 

The sites are chosen to study how sand and rocks change both in chemical composition and physical properties as they move from the glacier to the nearby river.  

Before Mars becomes an inhospitable frozen desert where the average temperature hovers around -63 ° C, scientists think it looks a lot like subarctic island.  

“The mineralogy in Iceland is very similar to the one we would find on Mars,” observes Ryan Ewing.  

The professor of geology and geophysics at the A & M University of Texas in the United States refers to the many dark, so-called mafic, that is to say rich in magnesium and iron as olivines and pyroxenes already found on Mars . “In addition, there is little vegetation and it is cold”.  

Iceland has already served as a backdrop for NASA exercises. On the occasion of the Apollo missions, 32 astronauts underwent a life-size training in geology on the volcanic island in 1965 and 1967 in the lava fields of Askja, in the heart of the highlands, or near the crater of the Krafla in the north of the country.   

Planetary analogue campaigns allow NASA to test the hardware and procedures (and those who will execute them) in extreme environments that model those that astronauts or robots will encounter in space.  

Mission Control is scheduled to return to Iceland for new robotic testing next summer before NASA’s “Mars rover” mission is scheduled to take place between July 17 and August 5, 2020.

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