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.
So 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.
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.