Status Report

Dispatch from Mars Society Arctic Expedition – Robert Zubrin July 26, 2001

By SpaceRef Editor
July 26, 2001
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I looked out the porthole window this morning and saw white fog, and nothing but white fog, as far as
the eye could see, which was not far.

We were socked in. This forced a change of plan. We had intended to perform an EVA to deploy telerobots into the canyon 7 km to the north that Charles, Cathrine, and I had scouted yesterday. But the fog killed that idea. Two polar bears had been spotted in that area yesterday by the Haughton Mars Project helicopter, and the thick white fog would give them all the cover they would need to take us by surprise.


Replanning a new route to an alternative canyon to the east took some time, then we had some electrical problems with the incinolet, followed by some with the rovers, after which there was the usual pre-EVA fidgeting about looking for necessary items, and so forth. As a result, by the time we were ready to suit up, it was lunch time, so we had lunch instead. The bottom line was that we did not get out the airlock until 2 PM. This actually turned out to be for the best, because by that time the fog had lifted. We could have reverted to our previous northern objective at that point, but we stuck with our new plan.

The objective was now to deploy a telerobot into Devo Rock Canyon, so named by Frank Schubert who was once a member of that musical troop. The canyon, located at UTM coordinates 8374.8 km N, 422.9 km E, is only about 3 km from the Flashline Station, making it a good first target for field telerobotic work. The EVA team would be John, Brent, Cathrine, and I, with Charles serving as station capcom. Our two telerobots would be Titan, the largest of the tethÖÿ÷ï units, and Solon, an even larger radio controlled system.


We loaded the robots right onto the front of Brent and John’s ATV’s and set off. We had to enter the crater on our way there, and as a result had a minor problem when John’s ATV got stuck in the mud. But we got him out quickly, and had no further difficulties until we hit the high ground and had to climb up a boulder covered slope, during which action my ATV got hung up on some rocks. But we pulled it out, and pressed on. By the time we made it to the canyon, it was positively sunny, and those of us who had dressed warm were sweating forcefully under our suits.

The canyon looked steep and deep to me, but John was disappointed with it. The problem was the slope was only about 50 degrees. A human could climb that slope, John said, so it really would not do as a telerobot deployment site. He pointed across the canyon to a sheer cliff on the far side. That’s where we should go, he said. Cathrine agreed with him, saying that the geology over there would be much more interesting. But it was already pushing 3:30 and Brent and I were both skeptical of the ease of access to the opposite cliff, which could only be approached in any case by doubling back quite a ways to obtain gentle slopes down to the river and then up again on the other side. So I rejected the suggested redeployment. This displeased John, but we scouted around and found a site on our side of the canyon with a 70 degree slope and he was satisfied with that.

The first robot to be deployed was Titan, the giant of yesterday’s tethered group. I positioned him at the canyon’s edge with his cable attached, while John set up the control station on an ATV and showed Brent how to operate it. Instead of a computer monitor, for the sake of lightness a three-inch camcorder display was used as a view screen to allow the operator to see what Titan was seeing. We did some function checks, then Brent initiated the forward roll command and the small turretless black tank went over the rim.


Titan dragged his cable down behind him, but the wire would frequently get hung up on various sharp stones, When that happened, I, standing near the edge, would shake the line free, allowing the robot to proceed. That is not cheating: Titan is a telerobot and is meant to be used by human explorers. Actual astronauts on Mars could provide their telerobots with the same assistance.

Anyway, with some help from his friends, Titan made it about 100 ft down the slope. He had to stop there, because we ran out of cable. But overall it was an impressive performance.


Then it was Solon’s turn. Solon is controlled by wireless radio, but we attached 200 ft of parachute cord to him so we could pull him out in the event he got stuck. He is called Solon because he wisely projects a laser grid in front of him as he goes, allowing him to measure everything he sees and to deal much better with terrain obstacles. Unfortunately today, some of Solon’s settings had been set incorrectly, and so he moved so slowly that he didn’t get far before we decided to pack him back up. We found the problem when we returned to the hab, so he should be okay tomorrow.

We didn’t get any scientific data to speak of from our telerobots today, but that was not the point. Telerobots are not replacements for people, they are tools for people. In today’s exercise, we showed that a team of human explorers operating under EVA constraints could take a pair of these handy tools into the field and deploy them for use at a remote control station in a realistic operating environment. That’s what I call a good day.

My crew has only one more full day in the station. I’d like to deploy the telerobots off John’s cliff, but we have much else that we need to get done. We’ll see what we can pull off.

SpaceRef staff editor.