Mars mission to Iceland – Part 4

“Do robots dream of duct-taped shoes?”

With near frostbitten fingers, grit-ridden eyes, and a sometimes strange smell in our dust samples, I can safely say that I feel that little bit closer to being a proper (analogue) astronaut. The radio silence over the last few days has been down to us making the most of the weather, and conducting multiple EVAs in a field site rich in Mars analogue-y goodness.

But before I begin, I think I can put safely to bed the human versus robotic space exploration issue for good. I ask you, could a robot fix its own shoes in the field with only duct tape and a multitool?

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Ok, in a few years, probably yes. And ok, a lot better than I ever could. And sure, the robot might not have brought along a dying pair of boots on a space mission just because it loves them. But nonetheless, let’s just take a moment to remember these boots that have seen me scree-jumping on Etna, jumping over active lava in Hawai’i, and got me to the bar and back again near the Ries Impact Crater despite Weiss beer being served by the bucket. Raichle, if you’re reading this mission report, I will happily take a new pair of boots on my next analogue space mission. NASA, if you’re reading, I will happily wear whatever boots you tell me to wear.

Enough astronaut sartorial chit chat, on with the science! Our recent EVAs have involved parking the Rover Beast in some pretty Moon-like environments, and walking the remaining distance on foot to Mars. Take that Saturn V.

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Once in our Mars analogue site we have been carrying out a few complimentary investigations. First, we identified this site (not quite) from orbit, by studying hyperspectral data from an airborne study carried out a few years ago. These data allow us to make a direct comparison with similar data from in orbit around the real Mars. We then take a step closer to the surface by landing our ExoMars panoramic camera (PanCam) test instrument (AUPE – made by Aberystwyth University), to take multispectral panoramas, to see how in situ rover data compares with the coarser, but wider coverage, aerial data. These tests are also great for understanding how best to choose future landing sites too, as the choice is made with orbital data.

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In another example of the added value of human space explorers, today I managed to find the movie setting on my new camera, and so have spent the day annoying my fellow analogue astronauts. This is AUPE going through it’s start-up routine, sped up 8 times, for no other reason than to see cars speeding past.

Next we go even closer to the surface, and use a field spectrometer, operating in visible and near-infrared wavelengths to compare to the two previous datasets. Here is Cmdr Harris getting all Dr Peter Venkman with her ASD field spec on loan from the NERC Field Spectroscopy Facility.

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Finally, we collect sample material to bring back to analogue Earth (London) from those sites we took spectra from. When we have left our quarantine period (duty free), we will use an X-ray diffractometer to tell us the exact minerals present in our samples, and see how the other data sets compare.

Then, in a typical EVA, it’s time to refuel (the astronauts), with lunch on this planet being a delicious dark bread that is magically cooked by putting it in the ground, all served in a space-age foil.

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Later in the EVA today we roved to a site that truly made me yelp with joy – we’ve found Home Plate on (analogue) Mars! This feature bears an uncanny resemblance, and almost certainly common formation mechanisms with the original Home Plate investigated by the Spirit rover. Both are probably some kind of explosive volcanic feature due to the interaction of magma and water. In our case, it may well have been subglacial meltwater, as we’ve also found pillow lavas on the top of this ridge.

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And for comparison, here’s the real Home Plate.

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Finally, a closing word on the physical toll that being an analogue astronaut can bring. After 8 hours at 2 degrees and a howling gale, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.

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