Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal – 14 July 2007: Using an iPhone on Mars

By SpaceRef Editor
August 6, 2007
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Click on Image for larger view. Images Copyright 2007

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The satellite dishes and associated comms gear we use at HMPRS to communicate with the rest of Earth
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Keith Cowing using his iPhone on Devon Island
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Keith Cowing gloating about having an iPhone
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NASA illustration of an advanced space suit wrist computer on Mars
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A PADD from “Star Trek the Next Generation”
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Video of Keith Cowing bragging about having Earth’s northernmost iPhone
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An Inuit artwork at the Co-op lodge. I know it is supposed to be a priest holding a Bible and a cross – but the 4 directional arrows over his head make me thing he is holding an iPhone.

One of the things you have no problem fining on Devon Island is electronic gear. It is everywhere.

Much of what has been studied over the years up here at the Haughton-Mars Research Project Research Station (HMPRS) has to do with how one communicates in a remote environment – and to do so at sufficiently high enough speeds so as to make use of a variety of experimental hardware and other devices.

Since this is a research station – one where a large number of people need to be in constant communication with each other – as well as with people around the world, HMP has always strived to provide good communication – comms – with the real world back home. No comms system is perfect and here in the arctic there lots of things that can cause things to go down. That said, when it all works – which is most of the time, you are as wired with the rest of humanity as you would be on your cable modem back home.

When humans return to the Moon – to stay (I hope), I am all but certain that one of the key things they will have is a robust communications system that affords them access to things back on Earth with the same ease as they’d have back home. When we move further outward, travel time for radio signals starts to become an issue. On Mars you could wait 20 minutes for a message – 40 if you send a request for a web page to load. This will be an adaptation is being experienced real time is here on Devon Island.

We have two large satellite dishes this year – a C-band dish for experiments and a Ka band dish for other purposes. We also have a rather sophisticated radio communications system for use when we go outside of base camp on a traverse. This way no one is ever out of contact should an emergency arise – or hopefully, nothing more than a call back saying that a team will be coming in late for dinner.

We also have WiFi. One of the things I used to connect to the WiFi system this year is rather new – at least it was in early July 2007. You see, I was rather certain that I had Earth’s northernmost iPhone with me. Unless someone bought one in the past several weeks and is flying a polar route on a non-American commercial airline (in which case I’d modify my claim to say “on the surface of Earth”) I think my claim is safe.

Besides, why would anyone bring one this far north (you can’t get phone service) unless you had another use for it. In my case, I wanted to see – in a totally un structured way – what it would be like to have a small computer – one that I could mount on my wrist like you see in all the NASA paintings of future space suits.

I had tried to make such a claim before – back in 2002 to be exact. I had a first generation iPod with me. Just as I started to suggest that I might have Earth’s northernmost iPod, a helicopter flew into our landing strip. As the pilot got off I could see an iPod on his belt. I had mine with me and pulled it out. I told him of my claim. He smiled and said that he’d been up to Elsmere island several hundred miles north (darn!), and that he was certain he had that distinction. “But” he said “I’m heading back south, son so the iPod honor is all yours!” (yahoo!)

We early iPod adopters were a tight bunch.

This year, in addition to my 4th generation iPod, I have a much more sophisticated device with me – an Apple iPhone. I did not buy it the day they came out. I waited until the second day. Expecting long lines I walked into the Tyson’s Corner Apple store and discovered no line at all. 5 minutes later I was walking out with my iPhone.

Once I activated it, I could see that the hype was true. Although it took some practice, I quickly got the finger controls down. Soon I was uploading music, movies, etc. What an amazing little device. What really pleased me was the display. Not only was it crystal clear, but as I soon discovered on my flights north, the screen holds up even when you sit next to an airplane window.

After spending several days on more important things, Matt and I were settled in, certain of all of the technology we needed to use in the week ahead. Matt knew I wanted to shoot a video or two of my using my iPhone. After a number of takes, I got things they way I wanted them. In one video I had the iPhone strapped to my wrist just like you see the astronauts doing in their futuristic spacesuits in NASA graphics and in Sci-Fi movies. Again, the display held up rather well indirect sunlight – even if the video does not do it justice. Given the strong WiFi signal we have I could easily surf the web to my heart’s content.

I would later learn that the signal was strong enough that I could surf in my tent. To be honest I did not do that much since I went to my tent to sleep. However, I did use the iPhone in my tent for entertainment. I bought a movie I had not yet seen – “National Treasure”. Over the course of the week I have ended up watching it in 30-minute segments – that is until I was falling asleep. I also used the iPhone as my alarm clock several times. If it had a short wave tuner I might have used it to catch some news.

This trip to Devon Island is my third. My first two in 2002 and 2003 were a month long and I had a lot of hard work to do. This year I am only on the island for 8 days so my time is much more precious. If I were on a longer duration stay here, I think the iPhone would have become much more of a part of my life. In 2002 I think there were only two other people who had music players with them. That number increased in 2003. Now everyone has them.

Like anyone else I use music for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it helps me work. Sometimes it helps me relax. Other times it helps me taken in the immense and austere beauty of this place. And also, it also helps me escape. Add in the prospect of synchronize video to go with the music and the iPhone becomes even more valuable.

So what would I like my iPhone to do on Devon Island (and on Mars)? Lets look at what would be useful in a setting such as this – a remote arctic research station. I’d also like to see things that would be of use on the Moon or Mars.

If I were here for a month or more I might like to pt on videos and music that allow me to go back to the moist mid-Atlantic climate love in. You see variations of this, of course in Star Trek with its “holodecks” or in the current film “Sunshine” with its “Earth Room” and “Oxygen Garden”. To make the illusion more immersive, however, I would like to be able to plug a nice head mounted display into this iPhone. Right now you can do this with video iPods and other devices.

If you watch Star Trek you see people walking around with Tricorders and things that are called PADDs – flat versions of what I am carrying here. They are ubiquitous. Larger versions appear in the iconic film “2001 A Space Odyssey” although they are more like tablet computers. If I were on Mars, I would want all of the devices I carry to be inherently networked and overlap in capabilities. I’d like them to know how to talk to each other – and when to do so – and when not to do so.

But I’d like to have one thing that I carry at all times which has the ability to either do all of my data collecting and communication chores – or link to other devices that do so. I’d like to be able to talk to other people, see them, see what they are seeing and let them see what I am seeing I’d like to share data, images, news, etc.

I also want it to tell me – and others where I am. That means a GPS capability. I’d also like maps that cover the Earth wherein my location and those maps interact with current weather maps to tell me everything I need to know about what things will be like here in 10 minutes or 10 hours. On Mars I suspect that this location capability would be very important. I guess that depends on whether a Mars version of GPS constellation is put in place to support explorers.

I’d also like it to see how I am doing physically. Right now you can buy a little gizmo marketed by Apple and Nike, which attaches to an iPod Nano that allows you to record your running performance. It’s a little accelerometer and a radio. I’d like to have some implantable sensors – communicating by Bluetooth – sending information to my iPhone so that I am aware if I am not doing things in an optimal fashion . Id also like to be able to send a short burst of data to the camp doctor in case I fell ill or get injured in the field.

Some wish list eh? Right now the iPhone is only part of that answer. As I understand its operating system, it is a variant of Mac OSX and increasing capability is destined to appear in time. I an pretty much get my laptop to do all of these things so long as I can connect to the Internet, so I can’t image that seeing this functionality appear on an iPhone will be all that hard to do. So I guess I will need to be patient.

I’d like to allow me to plug in external displays, easily synch up with similar devices, allow me to tell it to do things with its existing interface, an external keyboard, and voice commands (if I am in my space suit). In addition, I’d like to make audio notes, pre-record or respond to phone messages from home, or just text message someone at Base Camp with a simple question.

I’d also like to be able to run software on this device the same way I do on my laptop (main computer) or link to my laptop via this device and use those tools. Right now you are limited to what was on this device when you bought it. Again, I am expecting much more in the months ahead.

I have been very careful with this device. Everyone knows I have it – and everyone wants to see it – and play with it. Up here with fine chalky grey dust and grit covering almost every surface, I am reluctant to leave it out for too long. I bought the most robust case I could find, but the glass touch display is still exposed. As such, to use this more widely here I’d like to see a much more rugged user interface – perhaps one that can be replaced once it is worn or scratched. I’d also like a far more rugged carrying case for it. I am certain that the market will provide this in due time.

I’d also like vastly more storage. 8GB is not enough. I have a 40 GB iPod and it is almost full – that’s just music and podcasts. I’d like to put documents, presentations, spreadsheets etc. on here – just like I can with my Treo 700P. In essence I want another nifty little Mac on my wrist that has the same basic capabilities as its siblings and the ability to interact with them in a synergistic fashion such that I can connect with what and whom I need to when I want to.

I think the iPhone will do for mobile computing what the iPod did for mobile music. But yes, I am an unrepentant Macaholic so of course I would say that. When I look at my first generation iPod that accompanied me here in 2002 (which still works now that the battery has been replaced), my 4th generation iPod I bought in 2004, and what has transpired in 5 years to create the iPhone, I think I will get all of the things I have asked for in due course.

When you go to a place like Devon Island, you are going there, in part, because it is so isolated, unique, and apart from regular life. When you go to such places for more than a quick sortie these places, hostile and remote they may be – they also become your home. As is the case with most people, you always seek to modify your environment to make it more of a home.

The HMPRS was a collection of heated tents, ATVs, and Ethernet cables when I last visited 4 years ago. Now, the tents are still there, but they are arranged like modules on a Moon base -and will eventually be connected to a structure called the “Hub” or the “Core”. Although the weather did not call for it (warm every day) the heating is much improved. And the communications, although still expeditionary in nature, are easier to use now.

HMPRS is becoming a place to live now whereas it was a place to visit just a few short years ago. I imagine that our bases on the Moon and eventually on mars and elsewhere will undergo a similar transition from rough to comfortable.

The one thing however that makes it all work is the ability to interact with each other locally and with others back home. While that may not always be a 24/7 capability, it is essential nonetheless. The devices we employ here foreshadow what we’ll use as we camp out – and then live on other worlds. It was fun, for a few days, to play with a precursor of such a device.

About Devon Island, The Haughton-Mars Project, and the Mars Institute

The Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) is an international interdisciplinary field research project centered on the scientific study of the Haughton impact structure and surrounding terrain, Devon Island, high arctic, viewed as a terrestrial analog for Mars. The rocky polar desert setting, geologic features and biological attributes of the site offer unique insights into the possible evolution of Mars – in particular the history of water and of past climates on Mars, the effects of impacts on Earth and on other planets, and the possibilities and limits of life in extreme environments. In parallel with its science program, the HMP supports an exploration program aimed at developing new technologies, strategies, humans factors experience, and field-based operational know-how key to planning the future exploration of the Moon, Mars and other planets by robots and humans. The HMP managed jointly by the Mars Instituteand by the SETI Institute.

Keith Cowing’s 2007 Devon Island Journals

10 July 2007: Back to the Arctic
11 July 2007: Heading North
12 July 2007: Dropping Onto Devon Island
13 July 2007: Teaching About Roses on Mars
14 July 2007: Using an iPhone on Mars
15 July 2007: Surreal Landscapes and Late Evening Thoughts
16-17 July 2007: Webcasts, Robots, Astronauts, and Dogs
18 July 2007: Ancient Memorials for Modern Space Explorers
19 July 2007: Sheer Audacity
20-22 July 2007: The Persistence of Memory
27 July 2007: Polar Deserts and Global TV

Keith Cowing’s 2003 Devon Island Journals

17 Jun 2003: Preface: Moving from Green to Grey
3 Jul 2003: Waiting in Resolute
3-5 July 2003: Arrival and Getting to Work
6 July 2003: Getting in the Groove
7 July 2003: Part 1: Being here – and being there.
7 July 2003: Part 2: Getting Out of Base Camp
8 July 2003: Infrastructure
9 July 2003: Re-connected; Planting Seeds
17 July 2003: Rover Arrival
18 July 2003: Wind
19 July 2003: Illness, Good Food, and Morale
20 July 2003: Arctic Memorials and Starship Yearnings
20 July 2003: Going Home
21 July 2003: Departure – and One Last Dedication
24 July 2003: 24 July 2003: Homeward Bound – In Slow Motion
26 August 2003: Home +30

Keith Cowing’s 2002 Devon Island Journals

8 Jul 2002: Arrival
9 Jul 2002: Getting acquainted – and down to work
10 Jul 2002: Mars carpentry
11 Jul 2002: Lexan Kites, shotguns, and Driver’s Ed
12 Jul 2002: Building and exploring
13-15 Jul 2002: Building a Mars greenhouse on Earth
16 Jul 2002: Sealing Greenhouses on Earth – and Mars; 6 Wheeled Rovers
17 Jul 2002: Greenhouse Dedication, Fishing, and Mystery Food
18 Jul 2002: Giving Blood, Eternal Light, and an Evening Commute
19 Jul 2002: The Hottest Place on Devon Island, T-shirts, a Star Trek hello
20 Jul 2002: Mars Airplanes and Communicating With Earth
21 Jul 2002: Visiting ministers, missing ‘green’, and crater tours
22 Jul 2002: The hottest place on Devon Island
23 Jul 2002: Farewells, Birthdays, and Bartering
24 Jul 2002: EVAs, movies – and ‘being here’
25 Jul 2002: Russian TV, webcam privacy, and being on Mars for a few minutes
26 Jul 2002: Cold Feet, Chocolate, and Home Cooking
27 Jul 2002: Anchors and anemometers
28 Jul 2002: Drilling into permafrost; leaving footprints for eternity
29 Jul 2002: Showering near the North Pole; one last look around
30 Jul 2002: Departure and arrival
31 Jul 2002: Culture shock and flight delays
1 Aug 2002: Departure into darkness
2 Aug 2002: Green overdose; home at last
2 Sep 2002: Home +30

SpaceRef staff editor.