Dig Baton Rouge

GROUNDED

By Nick BeJeaux

 

Late last year, a group of LSU students made one small step for student-designed space equipment and one giant leap for University science programs.

Though it was announced that the Mars Ice Deposit by Application of Seismology module being developed by students at LSU wouldn’t travel to Mars in 2018, the team of students behind MIDDAS still has work to do.

The MIDDAS project was one of several applicants for the Mars One University Competition, and competed against top universities around the globe for a spot on MO’s 2018 lander. The concept behind the project is simple: use Mars’ own seismic activity to echolocate deposits of ice under the surface – a valuable tool, considering Mars has no liquid water to speak of. MIDDAS was one of ten projects selected to participate in the competition and the winner was chosen by vote of Mars One’s Supporters. Ultimately, Project Seed from MIT Portugal, with its goal of germinating seeds on Mars for the first time in recorded history, won the spot on the lander.

Though disappointed, the team of over a dozen students and professors are proud to have come this far, and they indeed intend to keep going.

“There very well may be other opportunities with Mars One,” David Susko, principal investigator for the project. “I’ve talked to the group and we’ve all decided we’re going to stay in touch so if another opportunity does come up, we can jump on it. As far as other avenues, I’m not ruling it out, but we’re not exploring that right now. I guess if we were going to pitch this to NASA we would need a lot more testing on our build and more understanding behind the science.”

The job market to today is particularly brutal on new graduates, but most graduates don’t have the line “I collaborated with a team to develop a sophisticated ice detection device that could survive the journey to Mars” on their resume.

“The biggest thing is learning what it’s like to work with people of other disciplines – I’ve said that ten times and I’ll say it another ten times,” said Susko. ”Seeing things from an engineer’s viewpoint is very eye opening and any project worth doing in life is probably going to require a multi-disciplined team. But I think the biggest thing I got out of this was going through the proposal process.”

After going through the stages of conception, design, and proposal for this project, their senior thesis and subsequent graduate work will be much easier.

“I feel like we have a head start on how graduate and PhD work can play out and better understand that there are so many things you have to think about in the proposal writing stage,” Taylor Judice, team seismologist. “Where it comes in with working with people of different fields, they think of things you never would have thought of. That just brings a whole nother element to the table – it’s such a great learning experience.”

Odd enough, studying and theorizing on the seismic nature of Mars from afar has increased the team’s knowledge of the earth’s.

“I realised my knowledge of seismic was not nearly what I thought,” said Susko. “that and geology play a huge role in industries like petroleum. I’ve always seen the squiggles on a map, but working on this project has helped me understood what the squiggles mean.”

The technology the module uses is based off of experiments by LSU seismologist Dr. Juan Lorenzo, who is very interested in taking the student’s adaptation more resilient adaptation of his work into the field to study the earth’s tectonics.

“He is working with our research advisor, Dr. Suniti Karunatillake, and they are putting together a proposal to NASA to test this device in Martian analogues, like in Alaska or the arctic where it’s very cold and very dry,” said Susko. “They asked us what different sensors we found could function in a Martian environment and how we designed the module suit so it could be mobile as opposed to a giant tower of computers.”

When asked about the winner of the University Competition, the team agrees that testing whether or not plants will grow on Mars is valuable and had nothing bad to say about Team Seed. Also, by studying the social media campaign launched by Seed the MIDDAS team has realized that science for scientists is hard to sell to the masses. If the team has one regret about their time on MIDDAS, it’s not hiring a PR manager. Susko said he kicked himself when he realized this, but ultimately he and Judice see this as a lesson on their responsibility as scientists to educate the public and not just their peers.

“You see all of these experiments done by NASA and the end of the science is not to benefit the people who make these discoveries, but to use these finds to benefit everyone,” said Judice. “That’s what’s unique about Mars One is that they really get the people involved and they have a say-so so that they see the benefit they get from the science.”

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