Testing Mars Rovers In Utah’s Red Desert
Take a 20-minute drive down Cow Dung Road, outside of Hanksville, Utah, and you’ll stumble across the Mars Desert Research Station. This cluster of white buildings—webbed together by a series of covered walkways—looks a little alien, as does the red, desolate landscape that surrounds it.
“The ground has this crust that you puncture through, and it makes you feel like your footprints are going to be there for a thousand years,” said Sam Craven, a senior leading the Brigham Young University team here for the University Rover Challenge. “Very bleak and dry, but very beautiful also.”
This remote chunk of Utah is a Mars analogue, one of roughly a dozen locations on Earth researchers use to test equipment, train astronauts and search for clues to inform the search for life on other planets. While deployed at the station, visiting scientists live in total isolation and don mock space suits before they venture outside.
On this day though, 31 teams out of the more than 100 teams from 15 countries that applied are here to compete. The students showed off their rovers and ran them through a series of grueling challenges.
Longtime judge Graham Lau, a Boulder, Colorado-based astrobiologist with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, said the work students put in is truly innovative. Many go on to have successful careers at national space agencies or private companies.
“Long before we flew Ingenuity as the very first powered flight on Mars, students in the URC were building drones and then flying those drones off of the back of their rovers,” he said.
Oftentimes, getting to the station is as challenging as the competition itself. Participants must wrangle visas, get their delicate equipment through customs and make repairs on the fly. Director Kevin Sloan said they “often joke with teams that the URC is a logistics competition with a little robotics thrown in.”
One team’s tools were stolen on their way to Utah this year, while another had a part damaged by the Department of Homeland Security. Yet another group learned a brutal lesson after desert winds toppled and broke their communications antenna the day before competition.
“The emotions are all there,” Sloan said. “Things definitely get amplified because it’s a competition.”
Amanda Heidt is a science journalist based in Moab, Utah.
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SPEAKER 1: Local science stories of national significance. You’ve heard of the Battle of the Bots, right, where robots compete to outdo one another in feats of daring and skill. Well, get ready for the Battle of the Mars Rovers.
It’s a lot more friendly competition, and it takes place in what’s called a Mars Analog. That’s a place in Utah that is similar to the terrain found on Mars. It’s a landscape where robot teams test equipment, astronauts train. All to prepare for journeys to Mars.
Amanda Heidt, Science Journalist based in Moab, Utah, went to this location and reported this story for KUER Public Radio. Welcome to Science Friday.
AMANDA HEIDT: Thank you. Glad to be here.
SPEAKER 1: Nice to have you. OK, so robot teams come from all over the world hoping that someday their Rover may climb the Hills of Mars. Tell us what it’s like being there at this competition.
AMANDA HEIDT: Yeah, happy to. So, Hanksville, itself, is teeny tiny. There’s only about 160 people that live there. So you can imagine that when 500 college undergraduates roll up, the vibe in town changes. I had asked a local how it feels, and he joked that the town’s collective IQ goes up by 40 points for the weekend.
So there are teams coming from all over the world. I think this year they had 10 countries. As soon as you get out of town, though, that isolation really comes back to you. And so out, at the analog site where the competition is taking place, people are very focused.
Everything is timed. So the moment you show up, you’re in it. And then you put in this burst of really intense energy for an hour or two. And then, you have the rest of the day to recuperate and reset before you do it again the next day.
SPEAKER 1: That’s cool. What makes Utah such a good place for mimicking conditions on Mars?
Yeah, so each Mars analog on Earth recapitulates some aspect of Mars. And so for Hanksville, in particular, it’s really about the geology. And even without talking about any of the science, when you go there, it’s very obvious why they picked it.
It’s very desolate. It’s rugged. It’s red. There are these really beautiful striations. I had a picture printed out that Perseverance had sent back from Mars. And if you held it up to the horizon and squinted, you could almost see it as like a continuation.
Sam Craven, who’s the BYU team leader, or the Brigham Young University team lead, had a really good description of it.
SAM CRAVEN: The ground has this crust that you puncture through. It makes you feel like your footprints are going to be there for 1,000 years– very, very bleak and dry, but very beautiful also.
SPEAKER 1: What are the goals that these teams are trying to do?
AMANDA HEIDT: Yeah, so there’s four tasks that every team has to go through, and you’re assigned randomly to them over three days. And so just kind of following on what the Brigham Young University team did because I was with them most of the time.
So the first two that they did were called equipment servicing. So that’s basically there is a mock lander setup. And the students who are in a command station, which is a U-Haul trailer, will pilot the Rover, and they can choose from a list of tasks that they want to do to earn points.
So, for example, they can pick up a canister, open a drawer on the Lander, put it in, and then screw the drawer shut. And then as soon as that task is done, you have a 10-minute gap before you start what’s called autonomous navigation.
And so that one is different because rather than piloting the Rover, basically, the students are just putting GPS coordinates in, and the Rover has to navigate itself. Then, the next morning was the science mission, which I was personally very excited for.
And essentially, you’ve got three pans of dirt. And one has been seeded with spirulina like you would put in your smoothie. One is diatomaceous Earth, which is basically the fossilized remains of little aquatic organisms. And then one is basically nuked dirt. And the Rover has to go up to these pans and run tests on them to say which one has life in it, which one has extinct life in it, and which one is dead.
And then, the last one, you have to guide your Rover out onto this rocky field, and you have to find a fossil that you then take to an astronaut, which will then give you another clue of a thing you need to go find and so on and so forth.
SPEAKER 1: So, last question, Amanda. Is any of these rovers going to make it to the Highlands of Mars do you think?
AMANDA HEIDT: I don’t think so, but that is not a knock against these teams. I think what they’ve done is extremely innovative. It’s more that while Huntsville is like Mars, it isn’t Mars. So, for example, Mars has less gravity than Earth. It’s really cold. There’s no magnetosphere. So there’s a lot more UV radiation hitting the surface.
And so these are all challenges that they just didn’t really have to think about. But having said that, a lot of these students do go on to contribute to actual missions. So, one student I spoke to was recently hired to help build a Rover that will likely be going to the moon in the next few years. So I think about myself at that age, and I think it just makes it all the more impressive.
SPEAKER 1: It must have been exciting to be there. Maybe next year I’ll go to that one. Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today.
AMANDA HEIDT: Yeah, it was great chatting with you. Thanks for having me.
SPEAKER 1: Yeah. Amanda Heidt, Science Journalist based in one of my favorite cities, Moab, Utah. She reported this story for KUER Public Radio.