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In Iceland, Testing the Drones That Could Be the Future of Mars Exploration – Atlas Obscura

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On February 18, 2021, if all goes to plan, NASA’s Perseverance rover will land on Mars. While it’s poking around, looking for signs of past habitability, Ingenuity—a tiny, experimental solar-powered helicopter hitching a ride on its underside—will try to demonstrate the possibility of flight on another world for the very first time. We may be looking at the future of exploration on the Red Planet.

Back here on Earth, others are already looking beyond Ingenuity. A next-generation NASA-funded Mars mission concept, the Rover-Aerial Vehicle Exploration Network or RAVEN, is about to be put through its paces in a gauntlet like no other. The project will pair an autonomous rover with specialized drones and be sent across a 32-square-mile lava field in Iceland as a test run for a future on Mars.

Interplanetary rovers are technological marvels, but they’re stuck to the ground. Drones, in one form or another, are the next evolutionary step, and they will be used for more than just reconnaissance. With scoops and drills, eventually they will “go somewhere the rover can’t go, and bring something back,” says Christopher Hamilton, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona and lead researcher on RAVEN.

Hamilton launching a drone in Iceland.
Hamilton launching a drone in Iceland. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

There’s no mistaking the impact drones are having on science right now. During the prolific eruption of Hawai‘i’s Kīlauea volcano in 2018, the government authorized the largest peaceful deployment of drones in American history. Spearheaded by longtime drone advocate Angie Diefenbach, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory, they were used to film lava fountains up close, track the slithering progression of molten rock, and even help people escape their homes in the dead of night.

Today, the U.S. Geological Survey has a dedicated drone program, catching up with universities across the world that are using them to reach inaccessible or dangerous places for scientific research. “It’s the age of the drones,” says Diefenbach. “We’re going to do so many cool things.”

Not long ago, the most advanced drones “were all in the hands of the military,” says Gordon Osinski, a planetary scientist at the University of Western Ontario and RAVEN team member. Now you can buy pretty capable ones online or at your local computer store. Bit by bit, he says, drones “are changing how we do fieldwork on Earth. And I think it’s definitely going to do the same for other planets.”

Drones will be able to provide powerful, unprecedented views of Martian landscapes, just as they do in Iceland.
Drones will be able to provide powerful, unprecedented views of Martian landscapes, just as they do in Iceland. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

Scientists are getting very good at piloting drones down here, but flying on Mars is going to be tougher. The air density is a fraction of Earth’s, so any mechanical aviators will need to push a lot more of it to get any elevation—hence Ingenuity’s test run. While engineers grappled with this challenge at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory back in 2014, the Bárðarbunga volcanic system in Iceland erupted. Between August 2014 and February 2015, it spilled enough lava to easily smother Manhattan, making it Iceland’s largest eruption in 230 years.

The lava flow, as it cooked ice and water trapped below, developed a hydrothermal system with hot springs that became home to many happy microbes. By 2021, things had cooled, but vestiges of those bastions of life still exist, creating an environment similar to what researchers hope to be able to identify on Mars. To the tune of $3.1 million, NASA agreed with Hamilton that it would be a great place to test the next generation of automated Mars explorers, and RAVEN was born.

There are two components to RAVEN. The first is the rover. Courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency, it’s comparable to Curiosity in capability and design. It can be remotely operated by a human, (on Mars there would be several minutes of delay between commands and action) but it’s also able to navigate the land all on its own.

Christopher Hamilton with the RAVEN rover.
Christopher Hamilton with the RAVEN rover. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

The real innovation of the project will be in its cargo. The drone is a carbon fiber hexacopter, capable of flying for around 35 minutes and up to a distance of three miles, carrying about 20 pounds of scientific equipment. It will act as the more technologically capable rover’s field assistant.

A camera will be one key instrument, but for more than just aerial photographs. It can take several different photographs of the same surface feature, and then send them to the rover, where heftier processors will make true 3D maps of terrain—“a full virtual rendering of the environment around the drone and rover,” says Hamilton. These, in turn, will help it navigate precisely and speedily around the area.

The drone will also use a visible to near-infrared spectrometer, which looks at radiation coming off the ground to identify any interesting minerals or substances. But the drone has another killer app.

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NASA is laser-focused on bringing pristine Mars rocks back to Earth. Perseverance will dig up and cache 43 pen-sized rock samples that, through a series of upcoming NASA and European Space Agency missions, will be brought to Earth by 2031. While this robotic Rube Goldberg machine plays out, RAVEN will be testing a new way to grab samples in Iceland.

“My favorite part of RAVEN is the Claw,” says Hamilton. This refers to a scoop, or a series of scoop designs, that will be attached to the drone. Rocks of interest will be picked up and flown back to the rover, where the rover’s chemical-interrogating technology will see if the rock is fascinating enough to go visit the site where it came from, either to see the original context or get a bigger sample.

Scientists are looking to use that same concept for their Earthbound drones too. “The most exciting bit was to see the Claw attached to it, because that’s exactly where I’d like to go in the next year, for the [U.S. Geological Survey] at least,” says Diefenbach, for applications here. “That made me pretty excited.”

The team’s engineering partner, Honeybee Robotics, is coming up with drill designs, too, to pull out small cylindrical cores or grind rock into powder that can be vacuumed up and flown to the rover.

Steam blowing off Iceland's Holuhraun lava field.
Steam blowing off Iceland’s Holuhraun lava field. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

This year, RAVEN’s hardware is being manufactured and software is being coded while its hardware is manufactured. The games will begin in summer 2022, when the rover and drones arrive at Bárðarbunga volcano’s Holuhraun Lava Field.

The actual first test of the equipment reads like the instructions of a practical final exam. An operations team unfamiliar with the site, which will include students, will use satellite imagery to determine where best to “land” the rover and drones. They will issue commands to both vehicles and, within a set amount of time measured in Mars-days, then characterize the environment’s geology and identify potentially habitable or once-habitable pockets of it. In addition to testing RAVEN’s technology, the test will determine if a team new to the site will be able to identify the most astrobiologically areas to study—just as a future rover-drone Mars mission will have to. “I can’t participate in the science planning for our team, because I have the answer key,” Hamilton says, since he already knows the site, and the areas with the best potential for exploration. After the trial ends, and the team compares notes, they’ll run it back in summer 2023.

Hamilton can picture the time where RAVEN, or something like it, is deployed on Mars for real. By that stage, he says, “there is the possibility that the rover would be an astronaut.” Imagine that, not science fiction but real: spacefaring scientists, flying drones over Martian volcanoes, searching for alien biosignatures in the hazy light of the distant sun, the Earth (and Iceland’s lava fields) a bluish dot in the sky.

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Humans are heading back to the moon — and Canada is playing a bigger role than you may realize – CBC News

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If all goes as planned, NASA’s most powerful rocket yet will roar to life on the morning of Aug. 29, as part of the Artemis I mission to the moon.

While the mission will be uncrewed — the only passengers on the towering, 32-storey Space Launch System (SLS) and attached Orion capsule are three mannequins — it is the first moonshot for a human-rated spacecraft since Apollo 17 in December 1972.

The goal of the Artemis program is to send humans back to the moon — and ultimately to Mars.

But unlike the Apollo program of the 1960s, Artemis is an international effort. And Canada has no small role in returning humans to deep space; we are building a new Canadarm, a lunar rover and sending astronauts.

Our country’s role is bigger and better than it ever has been in our quiet, but storied, past with space exploration.

Canada was the third country to have a satellite in space. We have sent astronauts to live and work in space. We have provided crucial instruments to Martian rovers, and tools on a spacecraft that charted a distant asteroid. We are partners in the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope, providing the instrument that keeps it guided

And, of course, we built the iconic robotic arms — Canadarm and Canadarm2 — that have been used on space shuttles and the International Space Station, as commemorated on our $5 bill. 

And we, too, are going to the moon.

What’s next

The mission of Artemis I is to test the SLS rocket and the Orion capsule. But after that comes Artemis II, scheduled for 2024 or 2025, when four astronauts will travel in Orion and orbit the moon.

On that capsule will be a yet-unnamed Canadian astronaut — the first to travel to deep space.

NASA also has plans to build the Lunar Gateway, a small space station that will orbit the moon. Canada is contributing the Canadarm3, built by MDA, to that project — and the new arm is much more sophisticated than the originals. 

This illustration envisions what the Lunar Gateway space station will look like, along with Canadarm3, provided by the Brampton, Ont.-based MDA. (MDA)

“Canadarm2 today is on the International Space Station. It’s about 400 kilometres away from Earth, so a few hours’ drive, if you’re going straight up,” said Holly Johnson, vice-president of space and robotic operations at MDA. “Canadarm3 is going to be orbiting the moon at Lunar Gateway, which is 400,000 kilometres from Earth.”

With that extended travel, she said, the CSA is focused on “evolving” the intelligence and the artificial intelligence of the Canadarm.

“It needs to be more autonomous, it needs to be smarter, because communication takes longer to go between Earth and the moon.”

Just as the first two Canadarms were instrumental in building and maintaining the International Space Station, the Canadarm3 will be crucial in building the new Lunar Gateway.

MDA is also partnering with Lockheed Martin and General Motors to provide a robotic arm on a future lunar rover. 

And when it comes to lunar rovers, Canadian companies are also working on one capable of spending two weeks in the frigid temperatures of lunar night.

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‘Kicking butt’

“Canada’s role in space — we’ve been a player from the beginning,” said Ken Podwalski, executive director of space exploration and the Lunar Gateway program manager at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

“I just don’t think Canadians … realize how awesome we are. I don’t think they realize the things we’ve done with the shuttle program, with our astronauts, with science, with our satellite programs, our Earth observation, the International Space Station,” he said.

“We’ve been kicking butt for 25 years on that program and we’ve never failed. Never failed. We are absolutely a go-to player in space exploration. And Canadians need to know that.”

Canada may not be as populous as the U.S., Europe or China — some of the major players in space — but we are definitely mighty, said Chris Gainor, an amateur astronomer and space historian.

“On a per capita basis, we don’t spend nearly as much as the Americans,” he said. “But where we’ve been involved in space, we’ve always been kind of right at the front. We’ve been able to succeed when we put our minds to it and put some resources into it.

“I think that’s the important message: It may not be kind of top of mind what we’re doing, but we are actually playing in the big leagues at a bargain-basement price, I would say.”

A $470B industry that’s growing

Canada’s efforts are also about more than simply going to space, according to those in the industry. It’s also about investing in the future and jobs here at home.

“The global space sector was $470 billion in 2021 — and that’s growing. In Canada, it generates revenues of $5 billion, and it creates 20,000 jobs,” said Lisa Campbell, president of the Canadian Space Agency.

“That’s growing as well,” she said. “More and more young people are gravitating toward the space sector, because it’s exciting, it’s interesting. It’s science, technology, math, law, project management, finance — you name it. And there’s going to be huge demand for people in the future to work in the space sector.”

While it may not be immediately apparent that investments in space help us here at home, over the course of 65 years, there have been trickle-down benefits here on Earth, including technology for the cordless vacuum, memory foam and improved eye surgeries.

Canada’s contributions, too, have had knock-on effects: The Canadarm technology was modified and used to support medical robotics, performing thousands of procedures in hospitals on Earth, Johnson noted. 

The CSA is also home to an Advisory Council on Deep-Space Healthcare, which aims to learn more about human health in space, with an eye to innovating here at home. And the agency has launched the Deep Space Healthcare Challenge, seeking to create new diagnostic technologies that will serve both deep space missions and those living in remote communities.

“As we figure out how to sustain human health, and feed people further in space, it also helps us with challenges we have here on Earth with remote communities, food security, and detection and prevention and treatment of illnesses,” said Campbell. “Many of the technologies we develop in space help us here on Earth as well.”

The new race to the moon is now on, Podwalski said, and Canada is a big part of it — and should let it be known.

“As Canadians,” he said, “we don’t brag enough.”

Canada’s role in planned trips to the moon

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Duration 6:15

Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen describes Canada’s key roles in new missions to the moon, from the ‘amazing technology’ to ‘niche’ expertise in the evolving delivery of food and health care.

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NASA's moon rocket moved to launch pad for 1st test flight – CP24

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Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press


Published Wednesday, August 17, 2022 3:02PM EDT

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – NASA’s new moon rocket arrived at the launch pad Wednesday ahead of its debut flight in less than two weeks.

The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket emerged from its mammoth hangar late Tuesday night, drawing crowds of Kennedy Space Center workers, many of whom were not yet born when NASA sent astronauts to the moon a half-century ago. It took nearly 10 hours for the rocket to make the four-mile trip to the pad, pulling up at sunrise.

NASA is aiming for an Aug. 29 liftoff for the lunar test flight. No one will be inside the crew capsule atop the rocket, just three mannequins swarming with sensors to measure radiation and vibration.

The capsule will fly around the moon in a distant orbit for a couple weeks, before heading back for a splashdown in the Pacific. The entire flight should last six weeks.

The flight is the first moonshot in NASA’s Artemis program. The space agency is aiming for a lunar-orbiting flight with astronauts in two years and a lunar landing by a human crew as early as 2025. That’s much later than NASA anticipated when it established the program more than a decade ago, as the space shuttle fleet retired. The years of delays have added billions of dollars to the cost.

“Now for the first time since 1972, we’re going to be launching a rocket that’s designed for deep space,” NASA’s rocket program manager, John Honeycutt, said recently.

NASA’s new SLS moon rocket, short for Space Launch System, is 41 feet (12 meters) shorter than the Saturn V rockets used during Apollo a half-century ago. But it’s more powerful, using a core stage and twin strap-on boosters, similar to the ones used for the space shuttles.

“When you look at the rocket, it almost looks retro. It looks like we’re looking back toward the Saturn V,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters earlier this month. “But it’s a totally different, new, highly sophisticated, more sophisticated rocket and spacecraft.”

Twenty-four astronauts flew to the moon during Apollo, with 12 of them landing on it from 1969 through 1972. The space agency wants a more diverse team and more sustained effort under Artemis, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.

“I want to underscore that this is a test flight,” Nelson said. “It’s just the beginning.”

This was the rocket’s third trip to the pad. A countdown test in April was marred by fuel leaks and other equipment trouble, forcing NASA to return the rocket to the hangar for repairs. The dress rehearsal was repeated at the pad in June, with improved results.

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UNESCO team in Alberta to judge if Wood Buffalo Park should go on endangered list

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EDMONTON — A United Nations body that monitors some of the world’s greatest natural glories is in Canada again to assess government responses to ongoing threats to the country’s largest national park, including plans to release treated oilsands tailings into its watershed.

In a series of meetings beginning Thursday, UNESCO investigators are to determine whether Wood Buffalo National Park should be on the list of World Heritage Sites In Danger — a move the agency has already deemed likely.

“Canada is not delivering,” said Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, which first brought concerns about the northern Alberta park to UNESCO’s attention.

Bigger than Switzerland, Wood Buffalo is one of the world’s largest freshwater deltas and is rich in biodiversity, including nesting sites for endangered whooping cranes. Its maze of wetlands, rivers, lakes and prairie is the largest and most intact ecosystem of its type in North America.

But the park, which straddles Alberta and the Northwest Territories, is slowly drying up through a combination of climate change and upstream developments, such as British Columbia’s Site C dam. As well, research has found increasing evidence of seepage from oilsands tailings ponds into upstream ground and surface water.

In 2017, UNESCO found 15 of 17 ecological benchmarks in the park were deteriorating and gave Canada a list of improvements required for the park to retain its status. This week’s meetings are to assess federal and provincial responses.

A report prepared for Mikisew by scientific consultant Carla Davidson credits the province for establishing buffer areas around the park and  Ottawa for water management plans within it. But the document finds little else has been done.

A risk assessment for oilsands tailings ponds hasn’t begun, the report says. Sites in the oilsands region used by whooping cranes haven’t been identified.

Proposals from First Nations to address knowledge gaps have been rejected. No land use plans exist.

The report says provincial groups studying scientific issues have been given restrictive terms of reference.

For example, a group studying mine reclamation can only look at ways to treat and release effluent. Cultural impacts on local First Nations are not considered, nor are cumulative effects of separate developments.

“Alberta has declined so far to implement most of (the recommendations),” the report says. “Instead, we see many examples of Alberta relying on the very policy instruments that have gotten the park to where it is today.”

Meanwhile, both levels of government are preparing regulations to govern the first releases of tailings into the Athabasca River. Those rules are expected in 2025.

Contaminated water can be treated and released safely, says the Mining Association of Canada. In documents posted on its website, the association says tailings ponds can only be reclaimed after the water that fills them is removed.

“Oilsands operators have the demonstrated processes to treat these (contaminants) to levels that are safe for release to the environment,” it says. “After decades of work in this area trying different methods with constant improvement as the goal, industry is confident that water can be treated and safely released to the environment once regulations are established.”

But Gillian Chow-Fraser of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said neither industry nor government have considered other ways of dealing with tailings, such as pumping the water underground.

“(Treating and releasing) isn’t actually a reclamation solution,” she said. “It is a cheap and easy way for these companies to keep producing at the same rate.”

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Ottawa isn’t fixated on releasing treated tailings into the Athabasca.

“This is one of the options but it’s not the only option,” he said Wednesday.

“This idea that some have put out there that the only solution is discharging into the Athabasca River — it’s not the only thing we’re looking at.”

Alberta Environment spokeswoman Carla Jones said effluent is a long way from entering the Athabasca River.

“Treated oilsands mine waters that have been in contact with bitumen will not be released until we can definitively demonstrate, using rigorous science, that it can be done safely and that strict regulatory processes are in place to ensure the protection of human and ecological health,” she wrote in an email.

If UNESCO places Wood Buffalo on its in danger list, it would join 52 other sites from around the world, most of which are imperilled by war or civil unrest. It has only one other site from a G7 country — Florida’s Everglades.

“Having a World Heritage Site is something we’re supposed to be really proud of,” said Chow-Fraser. “This international recognition that things are not as good as they seem here are not something to be proud of.”

Neither industry nor First Nations want permanent tailings ponds on the landscape, Lepine said. But addressing that problem and Wood Buffalo’s overall deterioration can’t be done without more resources and a wider search for solutions.

“They’re not presenting a variety of options,” she said.

Lepine said a move from UNESCO might spur Canadian governments to action.

“This site needs to be listed in danger.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2022.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

 

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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