HAM Radio Underpinning Mars Mission

HAM Radio Support for Mission

Aussie HAM Radio Operator to Make an Impact on Mars

HAM Radio Operator Robert Brand VK2URB11 impacts to be precise. Early next year on a salt lake in Central Australia an Australian HAM radio operator will be conducting tests of a wide area radio network destined for Mars

Robert Brand, VK2URB, of Thunderstruck Aerospace reports that it is an essential part of a project to develop the Mars Nano-Lander and Methane detection system called MEDIAN, set to land in 2025.

It calls for 10 separate penetrators to be ejected from the jettisoned heat shield at about 6km from the surface of Mars. They will spear into the surface of Mars at 80m/second and form a ring about 8Km wide. The radio systems will begin measuring distance between the other landers and map the network. They will then switch to a random packet mode and begin ferrying messages to the 11th unit that will be a relay to an orbiting craft. Even the orientation of each probe will be detected and used to calculate the direction that wind (and hopefully any methane)is coming from in the thin Martian atmosphere.

Robert VK2URB says that the audacious mission is a joint project with the UK Methane detection group at the University of Central Lancashire and the Australian Thunderstruck Aerospace team. Robert is the design architect of the landing system, the mapping, orientation, communications, data relay, and the on-going non-methane science package. He says that never before has a network of probes been landed anywhere outside of earth and never before have impactors landed with the intention of surviving the process. Also never before has Australia directly played such a huge role in any Mars mission.

The possibility of microbial life on Mars has been discussed by scientists since the presence of methane gas on the red planet was found several years ago. Median will map possible methane vent locations for a rover to investigate. If the rover fails to land, the project will still relay local weather and subsoil information back to earth.

It’s expected that the tests in central Australia during April 2017 will demonstrate the essential role that radio will play in mapping, locating, orienting the network and then relaying data around the network. The tests will involve dropping a simulated heat shied from 3Km altitude and having the impactors fire at 2.5Km feet to simulate the impact that each would have on Mars. We will work with CASA to organise restricted airspace for the testing.

Even the orientation of each probe will be detected and used to calculate the direction that wind is coming from in the thin Martian atmosphere. The penetrators will stay vertical and will elevate the science and radio package about 1m off the surface allowing for better radio connectivity and clear wind profile. A 1M in diameter solar panel will provide adequate power and the network is expected to survive for at least 6 month on Mars relaying weather and sub surface information from fixed points around an area the size of a small city. It is expected that 7 of the 10 spikes will survive the impact.

HAM radio will provide essential communications for the tests and for the event. It is hoped a special event around the testing will attract the interests of HAM operators world-wide, focusing attention of the role that Australia is playing in space missions.

Footnote: It should be noted that no commercial activity will take place as part of the testing, allowing HAM radio support. HAM Radio is a strictly non commercial activity.

Aussies Working on Mars Median Mission

Mars showing landscape similar to our landing site

Mars NanoLander Network

Well, who would have thought? I am the architect of a real Mars mission. A fantastic project and an incredible program for me to really “launch into space”. Our new company – ThunderStruck Aerospace – is heavily involved in the mission and we will keep you up to date as we progress.

Space Just got Simpler with the launch of ThunderStruck Aerospace. Looking for aerospace solutions that work? ThunderStruck is based on working with problems, not against them. Where others try to counter the problem, we try to use the problem to advantage. An example is our latest project Mars Median. The task was to gently land 10 or more probes in a tight network on Mars. Near Impossible, right? In fact the “experts” said that it can’t be done. That is because they were simply trying to fight the problem of getting rid of all velocity. Enter ThunderStruck. In 2013 we were invited to solve this problem – successfully landing a network on Mars.

We decided to keep some of that velocity and use it to advantage. A ring of Mars impactors. They are designed to land our packages off the ground by about a metre or so because having a methane experiment in clear unobstructed air mattered. It was also good for the radio network. Getting rid of a parachute was also critical. A parachute on top of any of our experiments would be a waste. Landing at 80 – 90m/s is both survivable and important to success. Having a probe in the ground can increase the science that we can do and improve the efficiency of the Methane experiment.

A Nanolander needs to use almost everything twice to save on mass. The collar that we use to to limit the velocity also doubles as a solar panel and the tungsten tipped penetrator is both a sensor and earth mat. The radio network is both a communications system and a topography mapper. Reuse and embracing the benefits of what may seem your enemy is what ThunderStruck is all about. The Median Mars mission is not our only project, but it best demonstrates the power of thinking in new ways.

Read more about the design and integration of the experiment into the back of a heatshield by selecting Median from our menu at http://thunderstruck.space

If you need an innovative aerospace partner, think ThunderStruck.

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.