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Our Man “on Mars”, or How a WUT Student Conquered the Universe

Many leaders, businessmen and scientists dream about conquering the Red Planet. Conditions present on Mars let us think of it as a planet that might be settled one day. However, before we begin exploring Mars once and for all, we must conduct space voyage simulations. Michał Kazaniecki, student at the Warsaw University of Technology, took part in one of such simulations.

Everything began about a year ago, when the Student Astronautics Club, known for e.g. building Martian rovers, was contacted by people interested in conducting the first simulation for Polish astronauts at the centre in Utah. They were looking for an engineer who would mainly operate Martian rovers.

“At the club, we debated who should go for this trip”, says Michał Kazaniecki, student of Automatics and Robotics at the Faculty of Mechatronics. “Only one person could go. Finally, everyone voted that I should go there because – most of all – I have the most experience working with rovers”.

The Martian Adventure

Michał Kazaniecki spent two weeks in the habitat, in conditions similar to those present on Mars. The EXO.17 mission began on 11 March and ended on 26 March 2017. For the first time, America’s Mars Desert Research Station was opened to a Polish team. The mission was realized thanks to the collaboration of the SWPS University and the EXORiON Foundation.

The research centre where the scientists were locked is situated 15 minutes by car from Hanksville, Utah – 2.5 hours by car from the nearest big city. There is limited cell phone coverage, and the Internet is literally “caught” using a satellite dish. “When the wind came, and tilted the antenna, we lost the connection”, laughs Michał. “For 2 or 3 days, we tried to set the antenna somehow to ‘catch’ the Internet, but it didn’t always work”.

The Polish team was interdisciplinary and included, in addition to Michał Kazaniecki: Dr Natalia Zalewska (geologist), Dr Karolina Zawieska (specialist in social robotics), Jędrzej Górski (doctoral student at WUST, space engineer), Krzysztof Jędrzejak (documentation, media), and Jakub Falaciński (psychologist who remained in Poland).

The researchers used equipment analogous to that used during a real voyage, performed the same tasks, and used appropriate procedures. What’s important, they worked at a place where the landscape uncannily resembled the one on Mars; it was also very similar geologically.

Mission: Mars

Each participant of the voyage had slightly different tasks, and the mission had several goals. One of them was to assess the experiment’s participants with respect to their behaviour during long isolation in space. The team members completed many psychological tests. “We know we were in this together, there were no arguments or conflicts”, says Michał Kazaniecki about life in the habitat.

On the other hand, Dr Karolina Zawieska analysed relations between analogous astronauts and the robot Ares: when is such robot treated as a tool, and when is it personalized and treated almost as a crew member? During the mission, our student played the role of the deck engineer and operator of the rovers built by the Student Astronautics Club: Gaia and Ares.

Moreover, the researchers participating in the mission tested the modular astronaut suit that allowed them to adjust the suit’s parts to performed tasks. After all, a geologist needs a different type of pockets from a rover operator; therefore, they can adjust the suit to their needs.

Engineering Tricks

The team members locked in the habitat can count mostly on themselves. The technical condition of the base is supervised by a person designated by Mars Society, but he or she isn’t always around. Consequently, Michał’s task during this mission was to solve technical issues in the base.

He emphasizes that participating in such voyage is a great opportunity to test oneself and one’s abilities. With limited resources, you need to apply an engineer’s approach and solve problems effectively, even in an unorthodox manner. “We had to pump water into a certain tank, which distributed it to the entire installation”, explains Michał. “We had to ensure that the water level stayed between minimum and maximum values. Unfortunately, the tank was semi-translucent and slightly dirty, so we had to climb it and check the water level each time. To make life easier for us and future crews of the habitat, I decided to build a simple electrical sensor which lit up depending on the water level in the tank”.

phot. Krzysztof Jędrzejak

A Day in the Life of a Martian

How does a day in the life of a “man on Mars” look? At first glance, it doesn’t seem different from the daily schedule of a typical Earthman. They wake up, depending on their task, between 7:00 and 9:00 AM. Then, crew members eat breakfast. However, it is not an ordinary meal. Most food is freeze-dried, i.e. dehydrated, beginning from meat, through fruit, to powdered butter. “The food was somewhat special”, laughs Michał. “Powdered butter tasted rather like cheese, but it wasn’t too bad. Besides, it’s nothing for a student”.

Each day had to be carefully planned. The mission support team was notified about all departures from the base. This team had to know who planned to leave the base, where, and why, for how long, and with what equipment. All participants of the mission completed psychological tests. During the day and evenings, everyone mostly took care of their tasks.

Between 7:00 and 9:00 PM (i.e. about the time when it would be possible to contact Earth from Mars), the team had to contact the base’s supervisors, and to submit reports from the entire day.

phot. Michał Kazaniecki

Do It Yourself

Michał says that such missions have a special property – you cannot plan everything. “One day, we rode the rover outside and, suddenly, it got stuck in a dry, but boggy riverbed”, he describes. “We tried to drive it out of there to no avail, and it turned out that during these attempts, we burned out a fuse. I didn’t have new fuses on me, and I couldn’t find them in the base. It was a problem but – in five minutes – I made a makeshift fuse using a piece of wire, placed it in the rover, and we could continue working”.

How did the vehicles made by the Warsaw University of Technology’s students from the Student Astronautics Club fare on such terrain? “It turned out that the assumptions we made when building the rovers work well in reality”, says Michał Kazaniecki about his observations. “Before I left, we were still modifying our vehicles, also with respect to the tasks we were given. Our rovers handle perfectly well on sandy terrain with varying degrees of inclination. My part in the mission and the possibility to test Ares and Gaia also translate to important knowledge for the development of our projects at the Club”.

With such experience under his belt, would Michał decide to participate in a real mission to Mars? “I don’t think it’s even slightly probable, at least in the short term”, laughs Michał. “But, if it were possible – why not?”

Monika Bukowska

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