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LSU students closer to sending MIDDAS project to Mars’ surface

By Nick BeJeaux

When the unmanned Mars One mission heads to the Red Planet in 2018, it could include the work of several current LSU students.

On December 1, the Mars One Press Office released its list of the 10 finalists in its University Competition, where LSU’s Mars Ice Deposit Detection by Application of Seismology (MIDDAS) Project appeared alongside projects from universities in Germany, India, the United Kingdom, and across the United States.

One project will be chosen from this group by popular vote, which will be granted a spot on Mars One’s 2018 lander mission to the red planet, which is scheduled to set the stage for a 2024 mission to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars.

Mars One community members, social media followers, and the general public will have the opportunity to vote on and select the winning payload. Voting for the public will be opened in the first weeks of December and be accepted until December 31, 2014.

Listening for Ice

MIDDAS’ role in the mission would be to find subsurface ice that could be extracted and melted into water, vital to any potential permanent settlement on the planet. Today, the team of students behind MIDDAS has doubled in size since DIG last sat down with them in September. Besides growing in size the project has grown in thinking, as well, refining their ideas to a level of ingenious simplicity.

Cut_Out_PIP
How MIDDAS works to find subsurface ice on Mars. Click to Enlarge

In a nutshell, the module being designed by the students will detect ice deposits beneath the planet’s surface by “listening” for it.

Of course, that’s assuming it survives the 250 million mile trip, lands undamaged, and can stand up to the frigid Martian nights that average around minus 81 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We have definitely expanded our deployment methods,” said David Susko, the project’s principal investigator. “Originally, we were going to use a speaker to send sounds into the crust, but we scrapped that idea. We’re also on a very tight weight budget, so we’ve been looking at new materials and cutting things we don’t need. Instead of metals, we’re using more synthetic materials like plastics and polymers.”

Marsquakes

By cutting the speaker out of the design in favor of passive detection, the MIDDAS module has become more versatile than a simple ice detector. Also, a simpler design cuts the risk of malfunction significantly.

“It can do so much more,” said Taylor Judice, the team’s undergraduate seismologist. “By passively recording seismic readings the module, we can take a look at Martian seismic activity, which we think hasn’t been done before. The Apollo astronauts experienced moonquakes, so I think there’s a good chance we’ll hear some Marsquakes.”

Besides cutting the weight of the module and simplifying its sensors, the team has also figured out how to get the module onto the plant’s surface. Susko says that this was a major hurdle for the team to overcome in the beginning. After all, you can’t just plop a $25,000 instrument on the ground.

“We went from one engineer on our team [Ryan Denoux] to five in the last few weeks, and they’re the ones who developed a sliding rail system,” said Susko. “This by far was the lightest, cheapest solution that provided the greatest amount of control possible.”

Despite the relative simplicity of the module’s function, its actual design will be anything but. Luckily, the team will have the opportunity to test it in an environment that closely resembles the surface of Mars.

“The sensors we’re using are actually based on those used by Professor Juan Lorenzo in his research, but they will be built to withstand the dust and extreme temperatures on Mars,” said Susko. “Luckily, Dr. Greg Guzik, a physicist here and the Director of the LA Space Grant Consortium, has a Mars analog chamber that simulates Martian temperature, pressure and radiation. It’s not very big, but luckily it’s just the right size for our module.”

Impatiently Waiting

Mars One will announce the winning payload on Jan. 5, 2015. Susko and Judice said that the team will be a mixed bag of emotions ranging from ecstatic to nervous wrecks until then. Still, they both see the value just in making it as far as they have.

“We’ve changed a lot as scientists,” said Judice. “There’s so many things that you have to think about to protect your experiments. And the collaboration we’ve had to do with engineers, scientists and artists has just been amazing. The level of cross field work this project has made us undergo has been awesome in of itself.”

Of course, this is a student project, so funding, creating a design, and building a module aren’t the only things the team had to worry about.

“We were getting out first proposal for MIDDAS to Mars One together during midterms; it was due on Nov. 1,” said Susko. “I’m pretty sure no one slept much; I know I didn’t.”

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