Morocco Mars SIM testing Methane detectors

What is Mars Median – FAQs

Morocco Mars Median SIM testing Methane detectors What, Why, How of Mars Median

Mars Median by Robert Brand       I wrote Wotzup to let people experience some fun space projects to do with space or even in space with basic opportunity like the ISS EarthKam. The Mars Median project is without doubt a major Mars mission that I was not expecting to ever discuss on these pages. I am excited to be able to bring you one of the most amazing personal adventures ever – the chance to let you share an incredible journey to Mars and the chance to bring you my personal experiences as we go forward to explore the red planet. To this end, we may have to delay or cancel other projects that we growing, but that is the nature of having limited time to do everything. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be the architect of a Mars mission and it happened all by a chance meeting with a couple of UK team members and myself in the US

What is Mars Median?

MEDIAN – Methane Detection by In-Situ Analysis with NanoLanders

A network of Methane detectors and wind direction sensors that can detect methane and as the wind changes and the methane covers different sensors over time, the source of the vent can be triangulated. The Mars Median network will be a 10 to 20Km ring with each node also being able to send its results to other nodes and eventually to a Mars rover or relay to a spacecraft and back to earth. The methane detection is for both biological or none biological sources. The rover will locate the vent and test for the origins of the methane. If a biological source, it will tell us that life exists or once existed on Mars. It is the project of a UK team and it not tied to any Space Agency or company.


The search for life outside of the Earth. Methane from biological sources is the goal. Mars Median cannot tell the difference, but a rover can. We would be looking to fly with a rover landing close by.

How did I get Involved?

Nick Howes

Nick Howes and Mars MedianI met Nick at Spacefest in 2012 when I was new to the whole event. I had been asked to speak on the work I was doing to engage everyday people in space. At this stage I was not actually looking at any work in Aerospace Engineering and it was his next question that dragged me into engineering. Nick told me about this incredibly important project called Median and he had asked experts how to land a payload of 10 to 20 nodes in a network across a wide area on Mars – not just a single spot. He said that he had been asking experts from all over the world and everyone had said it was impossible with today’s technology. My initial thoughts included balloon technology, but I had other systems in mind and told him it was 100% doable. Nick has been a real power house keeping Median going until it was almost an essential part of any Mars mission that involved rovers.

The Median Proposal had to be in within 2 weeks and was then the work of Jane MacArthur. She was also at Spacefest and was nervous about whether she would be able to make it happen. I remember sitting down on the last day of Spacefest and telling her she could do it and how important it was.

The proposal has to be submitted within 2 weeks. They had a lot of missing parts to their project. I had to come up with solutions to the following: the deployment of the probes from a canister on the back-shell, the braking in the atmosphere, the landing, the comms between the probes and the spacial awareness of the probes. orientation of the probes on the surface and the precise location of the probes. Finally transmitting the data from the probes to the new rover.

Jane MacArthur

Jane MacArthur and Robert Brand discuss Mars MedianHere is my response back in 2012:

“I may do little else that come up with ideas or I might look after all of these solutions. If i did, it would be a major part of the overall project so that is not likely. The answer was yes. I had solutions within the hour and even better ones by the next morning. All I can say is that the project is now doable. The solutions that are there at the moment may be thrown out in light of better ones, but it gives the project a serious green light at this time. There will be many years of developing even better solutions, but for now it is just a green light for the proposal and I will wait and see if they get to go forward before I do anything.  It is just the fact that they came and asked that I find amazingly refreshing. If it never goes forward, it has still changed my world forever.”

Jane went away and completed the submission in time and then completed the construction of the test detectors ready for testing in the Moroccan desert at a Mars SIM event. The picture at top left is a volunteer deploying a very close test of the detectors to see if the concept was sound.

I never found out about the test results, but you can read about Mars Median on Page 24 of the Moroccan SIM outline – Page 24. There are a wide range of experiments that you can also read about.

My Facebook post of this picture of Jane says:

“Before I depart [Spacefest], here is a picture of the lovely Jane MacArthur who made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse. A trip to Mars of course – well at least as part of a team doing a science experiment – if our proposal gets through! None the less – I am hooked. It is doable and I hope that it gets the green light for 2022. Jane you have rocked my trip to Spacefest in a great way!”

That was the last I heard from the 2013 tests until this week October 2016. All of a sudden, the Mars Median project is in full swing and progressed from basic concept to a fully funded project and testing here in Australia of the deployment system in march / April 2017. Initial expectations of being deployed with ESA’s rover in 2020 sank with the crash of their lander a week before this post.

I have met Jane since at a London Space Conference and she has become an amazing space scientist and has traveled to the most amazing places as part of her space work. I cannot tell you how jealous I am of her experiences in this regard.

Initial Tests:

Read the linked document above for how the tests were conducted and as we now know, they were a success.

Phase 2. All Hands to the Pump:

Nick contacted a few days ago on Social Media and publicly stated – your landing proposal utilising impactors and the communications and mapping system has been accepted “Lock, Stock [and Barrel]”

The testing is being fast tracked for March/April 2017 here in Australia and I am heading that up – plus the comms and mapping work. I have already contacted CASA and discussed the opportunity to test with restricted air space and it is all doable.

The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) is running the Mars Median mission and building the impactors. The timeline at time of printing  indicated:

“Timeline is that the aerodynamic modeling is ongoing NOW, using ANSIS.. that will feed into final design then build. Initial high velocity gun testing possibly in the UK and possibly some shake and bake testing at Goddard, then thinking about March/April 2017 getting prototypes over to you (Robert Brand) with the release mechanism to do drop tests. Internals will be Arduino style systems (maybe PI’s ) with test rigs in place”.

It looks like locating the Mars Median Project on the heat shield of another another mission is an easier and a safer bet than the backshell, so we will test this concept early next year.

More on Mars Median shortly. Please feel free to ask questions.

Look Out Mars, The Aussies are Coming – Median

kangaroo-red-earthMedian Mars Mission for Aussie Designer.

By Robert Brand

Well it looks like Mars, but the Australian red earth is a bit of a Mars analogue. Maybe one day we will settle kangaroos there, given their ability to survive in places with no topsoil. A bit of terra-forming and we can raise the Australian flag. Well why wait until then. The Mars Median mission is happening.

As many of you will know I am an Australian living in Sydney and I entered the Aerospace Engineering sector 5 years ago at the age of 59 without any formal training or a degree. I am now 64 and I am the architect of the mission engineering for a project headed to Mars called “Median”. Yep, we are now working to build prototypes testing them, and fly them to Mars to form a ring of nodes that will talk to each other and relay the data. The essential part is the search for and triangulation of methane vents. The project is funded and phase 2 is well underway.

Australian flagSo how did this Australian end up with this once in a lifetime opportunity? A lot of lateral thinking and ensuring I was in the right place at the right time – Spacefest V in 2013. A glorious meeting of space people with a core group with the attitude of “let’s make it happen”. This was the year that I met Nick Howes from the UK. Nick was involved with Median before the first tests. He had been working with experts who told him that it was impossible to land 10-20 nodes on Mars with today’s technology and keep it as a small secondary mission. Then he asked me.

Within an hour I had a plan to use helium cone shaped balloons to slow the decent. The volume of the helium needed worried, The deployment from the backshell or the heat shield of a major mission was simple and but the balloon part was dead wrong. I started to reduce the size of any air braking until I realised that we could that a bunch of spears or penetrators could actually carry a payload that survives the impact onto Mars. Sure, you need to have crumple zones in the penetrators and you need suspension for the payload, but it was doable and it was survivable. It has been some years since I put forward my proposal, but two days ago Nick messaged me on my Facebook page. The UK group, now entering the second test phase said that they had accepted all on my design points – lock, stock and….. and that we were on a short fuse to get ready for a flight to Mars. This opportunity has never happened before regarding Mars – the closest I can remember someone was Adjunct Professor Brian J. O’Brien who amazingly did the Moon Dust sensors on several of the Apollo flights. His story is a classic, but he was already well accepted into the world of space + a couple of degrees I expect. Another amazing Australian is Warwick Holmes. He was a major engineering influence for the Rosetta mission and the landing of a probe on a comet. So much work and so much knowledge and experience. I expect that my work is much simpler than his, but I revel in the fact that I designed the whole Median system other than the methane detectors. In fact I spent 1.5 hours on the phone chatting on the phone today with Warwick about the things happening in the space sector here in Australia. I look forward to meeting with Warwick in the very near future.

So let’s step back a bit. After the 2013 Spacefest meeting where I also met Jane MacArthur, I was uncertain whether Jane would have enough time to further the Median project. I remember sitting down with her and telling her the importance of finding the methane vents so a rover could go over and determine whether they were from biological sources. Jane was amazing. During her super busy life trying to make a living, her studies and a lot of other things she built and organised some test units to work with a methane source.

Read about that trip here: It was done in Morocco in a North African Mars Simulation. Although the testing could have been done anywhere, this was a great opportunity to combine another science experiment with the Median. Here is the outline of the experiment on Page 24, but you can read up on the SIM mission and the other experiments that they conducted:

The results were good and after several years of looking for funding UCLAN in the UK is not readying for flight – well within the next 8 years, but you have to be ready years before that. UCLAN (University of Central Lancashire – UK) is the lead – I will act as test officer and advisor for several parts of the project. As I indicated in my early proposal for the Median project, we tried for a soft landing for each node, but the volume of helium or hydrogen was a problem with the containment cylinder being a massive problem. The second proposal was absolute. This was the only way to land – with a ground penetrating rod or ‘penetrator”.

As the architect of the Mars landing and deployment system, the self mapping system and the general communications system, I take great pride in that it is going to the next phase of build and test and is fully funded. It was hoped that the ESA 2020 rover may have been able to work with the deployment of the Median Network, but recent issues with ESA’s lander crashing on Mars has left that in doubt and the possibility of working with the NASA 2024 rover seems most likely. In the picture below a volunteer in a Morocco Mars SIM deploys the Methane test units designed by Jane MacArthur. This was a few years back. These missions take a lot of work and time if they are to gain credibility and funding. I will also be doing testing in a remote part of Australia, dropping the heat shield mock-up and watching the penetrators deploy, testing the comms links and designing additional uses for this wide area network of 10-20Km in diameter.


The UK team says: Timeline is that the aerodynamic modeling is ongoing NOW, using ANSIS.. that will feed into final design then build. Initial high velocity gun testing possibly in the UK and possibly some shake and bake testing at Goddard, then thinking about March/April 2017 getting prototypes over to you (Robert Brand) with the release mechanism to do drop tests. Internals will be Arduino style systems (maybe PI’s ) with test rigs in place.

Below is an early sketch of the deployment system in the back-plane of a space capsule with a speed breaking parachute. The same technology can sit within the heat shield, just reversed. Ignore the reference to 1.6km as we are now after a much bigger ring of nodes. Probably they will fire off at 8km altitude.median-deployment-system
The spike below will also have a crumple zone and more suppression for delicate parts in the payload. It is only a rough sketch for better understanding.