By Nick BeJeaux
Louisiana State University has Mars on the brain.
In addition to an alumnus that helped land the Rover Curiosity in 2012 and a Ph.D candidate that very well could fly to the red planet in the next 10 years, six students from various departments are working on a module for the 2018 Mars One Lander.
Once the lander touches down, it stays put, but is bringing with it a payload suit of eight instruments, four of which have been set in stone by Mars One. The remaining four spots are divided up between three slots open to the highest bidders and one slot that will be awarded to a University contest. Universities from across the country are competing for this eight spot. LSU’s idea for that spot is a module dubbed MIDDAS.
“It stands for Mars Ice Deposit Detection by Application of Seismology, ” said David Susko, a Geology and Anthropology senior and one of the project leaders. “Our idea is to shoot seismic waves into the ground and, judging by their changes in velocity, use them to determine if there’s a large quantity of ice beneath the surface.”
The technical term for a device like this is an ultrasonic transducer, but as mechanical engineering senior Ryan Denoux puts it for you simple folk: “It’s kind of like a large speaker you just point at the ground. That’s a simple way of explaining how it works.”
But as Susko, points out, this isn’t something you can put together after a trip to Best Buy.
“It’s lined on the outside by accelerometers – which measure the sound waves as they bounce back,” he said. “So we’re going to shoot the soundwaves down, they’ll propagate through the crust, bounce back and supposedly tell us is there’s ice beneath the surface and at what depths.”
If it works, the group is very confident that a device like MIDDAS will prove invaluable to astronauts during manned missions to Mars. Granted, Mars has lots of ice, but you can never have enough water when exploring an alien planet.
According to Susko, the idea of using sound waves to locate ice is based on the experiments of Juan Lorenzo, a professor of Geology at LSU.
“The first test of seeing if this had a shot of working was meeting with Professor Lorenzo and him telling us if we had something or not,” said Susko. “He got very excited about it! Obviously we’ll have to change it up a little from how he did it, but it largely uses the same equipment.”
While designing and constructing the module itself has proven to be challenging, the fact it has to survive the trip to Mars and function for six months without even slightly breaking magnifies the difficulty immensely. That’s where Denoux comes in.
“I mainly advise on materials to use and how to get the payload on to the ground without it breaking,” he said. “One of our biggest concerns is the cold, in space and on the planet, because that can affect your materials.”
At night, temperatures on the Martian surface can drop well below -100 degrees Celsius so the module has to be able to stand up to the cold. But that still leaves the challenge of dropping it on the surface without damaging it.
“The surface of the lander is like a table top and it’s about a meter off the ground, and with unpredictable weather actually getting the module on the surface can be tricky,” said Denoux. “We’re looking at using a rail system that will come out like a CD tray and using the cable that connects the module to the lander to lower it down.”
The group’s first deadline is September 1, by which they need to have a pre proposal submitted online to Mars One. Backers of the Mars One project will then vote on which proposals to seriously consider, which will then be re-evaluated in November. If MIDDAS can make it past that phase, the team will begin construction and testing of them module.
“We have a few ideas, as far as testing goes,” said Susko. “One of them is in our back yard. We’d just bury a sheet of ice a meter under the soil and see if it takes accurate measurements that way. We have the idea to try a similar experiments in more Mars-like environments, but obviously there is no comparison on Earth to Mars, but we think we can get pretty close.”