Mars on Earth 2004

Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse Update, July 20, 2005

Participants: Guelph University, Canadian Space Agency, Simon Fraser University, SpaceRef Interactive, Mars Institute

Principal Investigator: Dr. Alain Berinstain, Guelph University/Canadian Space Agency

Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse Images from 2004 (Half way down page)

I have to say that this field season must have been the smoothest year so far for this project that started in 2002. We learn a lot every year, sometimes from mistakes that we make and sometimes from lessons learned from working in this harsh analog environment of the Canadian High Arctic.

One major difference this year in terms of logistics is that the level of activities from the Canadian Space Agency (apart from this particular greenhouse project) warranted the chartering of an aircraft to carry the cargo and people heading to Resolute Bay for activities at Expedition Fiord and Devon Island. Having a chartered aircraft means that you are never separated form your cargo, and you do not have to ship it in advance. We arrived at Resolute Bay with all our people, all our cargo, and nothing damaged or missing. A great start.

Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse
Matt Bamsey and Richard Giroux moniter the greenhouse systems.

We were very fortunate to have flights available to put into camp on the day following our arrival in Resolute Bay, and we were able to carry enough equipment with us to be off to a flying start. It all worked like clockwork. Of course, this does not just happen on its own and it took a lot of hard work and planning by the CSA team and the Mars Institute team to make it all work.

We lost communications to the greenhouse last December, and we had some ideas of what could have caused the problems but they could only be confirmed upon the first inspection of the greenhouse on our arrival. As suspected, there were issues of power not being provided to the comms system or to the main data acquisition computer. Two DC converters had malfunctioned, providing two of the 12 Volt power lines. It will be difficult to determine exactly what caused these to malfunction but we have some theories.

There are very few commercial components available on the market that are designed to operate under the harsh environment that we subject them to. Our goal this year is to increase the reliability of the system in order to survive one full year.

This field season, we are increasing the power storage capacity by a factor of three. By looking at the telemetry data from last fall, it was clear that we were not using all the energy generated by the wind and solar power we produce. More batteries means more storage and ultimately more robustness. Because of the volume of all these batteries, they have been moved to the outside of the greenhouse in a protective enclosure.

We have also created a simple relay box that switches to a redundant power line if a power line goes down. If this box would have been in place last season, we probably would have made it through the winter.

We are adding a second MSAT terminal to the system. The first MSAT terminal allows us to receive the telemetry at home, to send commands, and to reboot the main data acquisition computer if required. The new second MSAT computer has the capability of switching off all power loads in the greenhouse, allowing us to go to a "super-low power mode" if required, drawing only 100mW of power when the second MSAT terminal is in sleep mode and all systems are off. We believe this will allow us to better manage through the long, dark, and cold winter here on Devon Island.

We have diversified the crop a little bit this year. In the past, we have grown only lettuce as a test crop. This year, we are adding radish, a much faster growing crop, as well as zucchini, that has larger leaves that can be more easily seen by the cameras in the greenhouse.

We have been running analyses of the performance of the wind generators to see if they need to be changed out before we leave. This is still under study.

We are confident that these modifications will improve the reliability of the system. We are learning a lot and we improve the system as we learn. Is this the year we make it through the entire winter and grow new crops remotely next spring? I certainly hope so.

Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse
Typical trays for plant growth. In this case zucchini and radishes.

Morale of the team is excellent. The work has been going superbly well. We are even a few days ahead of schedule. In a way, we are very fortunate to be less dependent on great weather to get a lot of our work done. The weather so far really has been awful. Very cold and windy and wet for 10 days straight. It seems to maybe be starting to improve. This is good timing, as we enter a final testing phase that requires less continuous attention, the team may be able to spend some time with the field teams out in the crater. We plan to leave Devon Island on or around July 25.

This year's greenhouse team includes Richard Giroux, a Visiting Fellow at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Matthew Bamsey and Raymond Yep, summer interns at CSA, Thomas Graham from the University of Guelph, Marc Boucher from SpaceRef Interactive, Pascal Lee from the Mars Institute, and Stephen Braham from Simon Fraser University.