In 2013 Kiwi school kids had the rare opportunity to follow a mock Mars Mission at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in the Utah desert for the duration of two weeks.

Education Log-MDRS

The following log is written to give a record of what type of questions were being asked by the students and teachers who interacted with the crew in SIM. The method of communication was via “Chatroll” an online tool of instant messaging.

Early morning sky at MDRS

Chat Log Kuranui College Greytown - edited

Feb 7 2013, 9:11 AM Matt Boucher: Hello, this is Matt Boucher and the Year 12 Earth and Space Science class at Kuranui College
Feb 7 2013, 9:13 AM KiwiSpace: Good morning Matt
Feb 7 2013, 9:13 AM Matt Boucher: Kia Ora!
Feb 7 2013, 9:13 AM
MelanieNewfield: Kia Ora
 Feb 7 2013, 9:13 AM KiwiSpace: would you like to have a few minutes skype with the crew before we start this?
 Feb 7 2013, 9:13 AM Matt Boucher: yes that would be great
 Feb 7 2013, 9:13 AM MelanieNewfield: This is Melanie Newfield, journalist and mission specialist in the TasMars crew
Matt Boucher: Thanks for that, nice to see you live
Feb 7 2013, 9:24 AM MelanieNewfield: OK,can you give us that question again?


Questions from students
Replies from the crew of TasMars
Has Curiosity made any discoveries yet, above and beyond what was found by Spirit and Opportunity?I'm not too sure about what has been discovered yet, but it has just started drilling - something that has never been done before. Also Curiosity is in a different area and it has a different purpose. Many of the things it is looking at are about the search for signs of life.
How does your mission at MDRS relate to the Curiosity expedition? Are you doing any science work that is analogous?
One of the things we have been working on is comparing the effectiveness of some instruments. Also, we have been collecting a range of specimens that are analogues for Gale crater. However our work is aimed at future missions more than curiosity. We have tested instruments that might be used on future rovers like a Raman spectrometer.
I have two students who would like to know more about MDRS. Paula would like to know how you find living in MDRS for all this time. Is it claustrophobic or difficult to live in these conditions?It's not as bad as you would think. We each have our own room - not much bigger than a Japanese capsule hotel, but it's enough.
Jeremie would like to know how MDRS's conditions differ from the ISS?We have gravity! Food is similar to what would be eaten on ISS, only we can do more preparation. They can really only heat stuff up because of the lack of gravity. But we have to spend as much time checking in with mission control as they do.A Mars habitat would be a lot more comfortable than the ISS.
The students would like to know if how NASA uses information from MDRS missions to help pick crews and design future missions?
A lot of people who want to be astronauts go to MDRS, although NASA doesn’t specifically use it to pick crews. They do send equipment to test. We have some of this equipment, and two NASA scientist are on our crew for this mission. The Raman spectrometer that we used is one example, and we are hoping to test a quadcopter which can fly and send back pictures.  It's not flying yet though.
What are the reasons for having a Mars analogue station in both Antarctica and the desert?
Each site has different properties. So MDRS is in Utah, where it looks like Gale crater. Utah has a lot of geological similarities, but the environment isn't too hostile to people. On Devon Island in the Canadian arctic it is different. Devon Island is a much more dangerous environment, with extreme cold, so you get a more realistic simulation. Devon Island has polar bears too. But we don't think they have those on Mars
Nathan would like to know how realistic you simulate humans-on-Mars conditions. For instance, what do you do if a spacesuit rips or other emergencies that would be problematic on Mars?This varies a lot between the crews and the nature of their research. For example I am preparing meals that are fully "in-sim" using only ingredients that might be shipped to Mars. We haven't simulated something like a spacesuit tear, partly because our suits are robust – although that’s a good idea, and I think that a crew on a different mission in Morocco may have worked on this. We have airlocks, so you can similate spending time getting pressurised before going outside. But our toilet broke, and after a week of very realistic sim (using plastic bags, just like astronauts on Apollo missions), we finally got a portaloo. You wouldn't get a portaloo on Mars, but we are grateful for it.
Kit asks what would actually be done with waste on Mars? Fertilizer?Recycled probably. Including urine - NASA is working on that now. Solid waste would probably grow plants. It wouldn't be dumped as there are strict contamination rules.
So, question for your class. How many of you would go to Mars if you got the chance?

7/16 are keen to go, and me, so 8.

Cool! I think it would be great to see. I'm not sure about the 6 month space flight but our mission commander has said he'd take me as the cook though!

Yeah they are not convinced that they would be in for the long journey. Taneka assures me she is 'down' though.

Another question - what skills do you think would be useful in a Mars crew?

Jeremie reckons planting and horticulture would come in handy
You are right there. I'm running the greenhab here and it's great fun
Engineers and scientists?
Yes, engineers and scientists too - all sorts. Especially IT people if their internet connection is like ours
Biologist for searching for life, physicist to do scientific experiments?
Taneka reckons we would need cheerful upbeat people to keep up morale.
Absolutely! Morale is really important. I think that's what makes our crew great.

How big would the crew be on a manned Mars mission?Probably similar to the usual MDRS crew, about 6. Some proposals have been for 4, another I know of for 8. We only have 4 and are really busy all the time. I worked 14 1/2 hours straight yesterday. I ate, but I was cooking all the meals so cooked and ate at the same time
Lily would like to know if plants in the greenhouse on mars would grow similar to how they grow on Earth?There will be some differences due to less gravity, but they will still have enough gravity probalby, and also probably enough light, although at times they may need some supplementary light.  At first they would mostly be hydroponic, until the humans have made enough compost
Jamie would like to know if there is a moon analogue station anywhere on Earth.That's a really good question about moon analogues. I don't think there is one (I checked later and that is correct). THe reason there isn't a moon analogue is that Mars is considered a more interesting place to go,although a moon base would be easier in many ways. Considered mor einteresting by NASA that is. There is a moon society that would love to have a moon base.
Katherine would like to know if you are practicing extreme water conservation?I wash with wet wipes instead of showering most of the time.
What kinds of plants do you grow at MDRS?What would be grown on Mars?Mostly food plants. I'm growing a few flowers (just started) but edible ones. I've got cress, snow peas, silverbeet, kale. I'm trying tomatoes. I reckon they would work. Oh, we have strawberries. We've eaten two so far on this mission

Feb 7 2013, 9:57 AM MelanieNewfield: OK, Mars signing off.
Feb 7 2013, 9:57 AM Matt Boucher: Earth over and out

Online with Kuranui College

Chat Log Tawa College Wellington - edited

Feb 7 2013, 1:37 PM Guest85 (guest)Hello from Tawa College, Wellington, New Zealand
Feb 7 2013, 1:38 PM MelanieNewfieldMelanie Newfield here, Mission Journalist at MDRS
Feb 7 2013, 1:38 PM MelanieNewfieldHello Tawa College
Feb 7 2013, 1:39 PM MelanieNewfieldWe also have Emma Braegen, Mission Engineer here
Feb 7 2013, 1:39 PM MelanieNewfieldDo you have any questions for us?

Questions from studentsReplies from the crew of TasMars
How are you coping with communication difficulties? On Mars it would be worse with delays?It's easier here than it would be on Mars, but it's quite a challenge. On Mars, we would have a 7 minute delay for each transmission. Here, we don't have a delay, but we only have about 450 MB to use per day.
Mars is not quite the same as on Earth - how long would it take to adjust?There are lots of differences. Gravity is a big one, Mars gravity is 1/3 of earth. But astronauts would have 6 months of weightlessness and would find arriving on Mars pretty hard. But after the flight, being in a habitat like we are in would be great. Outside on Mars, you wouldn't adjust because there is virtually no oxygen and dangerous radiation levels.
Would the low gravity make it easier or harder to do things?Once you adjusted, some things might be easier, as things don't weigh as much. But adjusting your balance might take some time. You could fall over a fair bit for example, and outside in your space suit, that might be dangerous.
After being in the HAB for a week how much room do you need to live on Mars?We think that the hab is pretty good for 4 people. We have an upstairs floor with 6 chairs and 6 small bunk rooms.
How many people should go on one mission?I think that some missions are being planned for 4, like our crew, but we have been very busy and all working hard. A couple more might be better in my view. But I'm sure NASA actually has worked it out and knows better than me! More people would cost more of course.
How much does it cost to go?Curiosity cost 2.5 billion, and it would cost more to send people - and to get them back if that was what they wanted. A one way mission would be cheaper.
Is water rationed like it would be on Mars?Yes, we have pretty limited water and conserve it carefully. We have a pretty complicated water system that Emma runs.
What are the hopes of terra-forming Mars?I think it would take a long time before we could terraform the Mars surface. Perhaps under big domes we could do a bit,but we would need radiation shielding for example. It's a really interesting concept though and it is being thought about.
What about plants? Can plants withstand the radiation?I don't think any known terrestrial life can survive the radiation. The most likely would be microbes like fungi. Fungi are doing well around Chernobyl for example. Perhaps we will take some of those to Mars.
Is the desert a good simulation of Mars?In many ways, this place is an amazing simulation of Mars. Curiosity has photos of Gale Crater (the landing site) which look exactly like the hills behind the hab. It really really looks like you are on Mars here.
How do we stop Earth microbes from going with humans to Mars? would radiation kill them?That's one of the things I'm working on. We think that radiation would kill most of them on the surface, but not necessarily underground.
What impact could our microbes have there?It depends if they can survive and also if there is Martian life. If there is Martian life underground, the conditions may suit some earth microbes, and they could completely change the ecosystems. If we leave microbes on the surface even if they don't survive, then when we are searching for life, we may detect them with the very sensitive tools that are being developed. Then we would think we had found martian life, but it would be earth contamination. That would be embarrassing! And a colossal waste of money.
Where in the world do you come from?

I come from Khandallah! Khandallah is a long way from Mars.

Emma is from Melbourne though. Our science officer is from Nasa in San Francisco and our Commander is too, but he originally came from Tasmania

A question for you - any of you want to be astronauts, or would go to Mars if you got the chance?

YES!!  definitely. it is my undying dream

Awesome! So, what sort of people would you take with you? What sort of skills would they need?
Who-what? Oh, Dr Who fans? YOu could watch the DVDs on the way. But if you are as busy as us there might not be much time when you are on Mars. What other skills would you need apart from the ability to operate a DVD player?
I'm not sure what skills i'd need to be an astronaut.Fitness, I think, would be important

Yes, that would definitely help. The space suit backpack is 10kg!

Do you think microbes could help terraforming?Yes, definitely. Microbes terraformed earth!
Feb 7 2013, 2:11 PM Guest85 (guest)thanks for your knowledge, we need to go to class now :/
Feb 7 2013, 2:11 PM MelanieNewfieldOK, great talking to you.

"This is an exciting opportunity for students around the country to talk to real scientists doing real exploratory work at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah," said Kiwispace Education Coordinator Haritina Mogosanu. A crew member on two previous MDRS missions and Flight Director for TasMars, Mogosanu said "students don't need a passion for Mars, just a passion for knowledge".

"The varied work done by the crews at MDRS covers human interaction, geology and geography, palaeontology  nutrition, engineering, biosecurity and more," she said. "There are so many areas of the New Zealand science curriculum covered."

The TasMars 2013 Team - following on from last year's KiwiMars mission - was stationed at MDRS two-week analogue mission to study planetary science, engineering, biosecurity and human factors at the mock Mars base.

Two members of the crew (David Willson and Jen Blank) are from NASA AMES Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley in California. Willson is an Australian engineer working on future Mars sample return instrument concepts. Blank is a geochemist and member of the Mars Science Laboratory science team working with the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars last August. The other two members are Melanie Newfield, a biosecurity manager at New Zealand's Ministry for Primary Industries, and Emma Braegen, an aeronautical engineer from Australia working for BAE Systems.

Courtesy of the KiwiSpace Foundation, all schools around New Zealand have a chance to interact live with the team at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) via the mission's chat facility page

The TasMars crew will remain at the base until 10 February. 

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