Kris and I came back from helping out with the 6th Mars Society University Rover Competition and it was a great success and a fantastic adventure. It is hard to describe in words just what an experience it was.
Like Mars, the contest, held miles off-road in the desert of Utah, is an isolated location, with harsh weather, including extremes of heat (hot, instead of the cold of Mars), dryness, dust, and high winds (VERY high winds! – we had winds of ~60mph that collapsed our contest tents!). Five teams came from around the world, bringing the fruit of their labors, with many hundreds – thousands – of hours of hard work behind each rover. And they discovered, as real life Mars rovers do, that the harsh environment of the field is not like the lab. Parts that were securely glued together melted apart in the heat. Dust and sand got into parts. Climbing over rocks broke apart carefully designed and painstakingly manufactured suspensions. Cameras and radio links that worked fine in the lab failed in the field. Missing or broken parts had to be fixed overnight with grueling multiple hour trips the the nearest city (which Hanksville does not count as! more like a wide spot in the road…). Rovers suffered vibration and buffeting from the rigors of travel – albeit in the back of a u-haul trailer bouncing down a dirt road instead of on top of a rocket.
Each rover had to weigh in, and perform 4 simple tasks – tasks any human, even in a spacesuit, could do in a few minutes. (Seeing the struggles of the rovers to do this really drove home the advantages of manned exploration over robotics. ) One involved going up to a simple panel, reading the instructions, flipping appropriate switches and taking a voltage level from a solar panel, then cleaning the panel of accumulated dirt, and repeating the process. Simple, right? Only one team managed…..
Remember that the teams operating this rovers do so ‘blind’ – with no line of sight to the rovers, and no visual queues other than the camera feeds from the rover itself. Getting all those coms and devices to work in the desert proved quite a challenge.
Beyond the actual contest, we had an adventure of our own. Kris was selected to be a judge, we got to sleep in the hab (!!), see dinosaur bones being dug out of the ground, visited a fossilized seashell bed, a sunset so incredible I can not describe it except to say ‘doh! we forgot the cameras!’, and drink (eat?) the unforgettable chocolate milkshakes in Hanksville, as well as meeting other dedicated volunteers and professors, viewing a desert sky filled with stars, and seeing the excitement the students had of competing in one of the toughest college contests there is.
We definitely have to go back next year….(we volunteered the group to help out with a new event!)
We’ll have more details (and maybe a slide show) next meeting….