Australians and Indians Use Mars Tech to Search for Radioactive Slime

One of the rovers tested at the Mars Society of Australia's Arkaroola Mars Robot Challenge. Source: Mars Society of Australia

One of the rovers tested at the Mars Society of Australia's Arkaroola Mars Robot Challenge. Source: Mars Society of Australia

The Arkaroola Mars Robot Challenge Expedition is underway in the Australian desert. The Mars Society of Australia conducts the robotics expeditions to evaluate technologies and exploration techniques that future astronauts may use on Mars.

This year’s expedition is in the Arkaroola region of South Australia, 700 kilometers north of Adelaide. The resort and lodge offer a range of guided and self-guided ecotours of the sanctuary. It also has 3 amateur astronomical observatories with public telescopes up to 360 millimeters (14 inches). But the reason the Mars Robot Challenge Expedition chose Arkaroola is that its desert terrain provides a realistic analog to the surface of Mars. The teams will search for signs of ancient life and explore some of the unique geological features - including radioactive hot springs. 

Mats of extremophile bacteria living in the radioactive hot springs around Arkaroola. The radon gas released from the springs makes the area too dangerous to visit except on windy days. Source: Mars Society of Australia

Mats of extremophile bacteria living in the radioactive hot springs around Arkaroola. The radon gas released from the springs makes the area too dangerous to visit except on windy days. Source: Mars Society of Australia

The Arkaroola area has geological deposits of uranium that heat water on its way to the surface. The steaming hot, 62˚C, water is radioactive with traces of radon gas and uranium. But somehow an extremophile bacteria thrives in the deadly environment. The conditions in these hotsprings may be similar to Earth’s environment 4 billion years ago - and may offer clues as to whether life could have existed early in the history of Mars. Check out this story from the Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s science program Catalyst for more about Arkaroola’s radioactive slime.

A team of professional and amateur researchers from universities and the Mars Societies of both Australia and India will spend 2 weeks testing both robotic and human field operations. Australian space company Saber Astronautics will coordinate their work from a mission control center in Sydney.

One of the robots being tested is the Mars Society of Australia’s own Mars’O Bot. Modeled after a design from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Mars’O Bot combines the rugged structure needed for use in Earth’s gravity well with power, control, and science systems suitable for use on the Red Planet. The Mars Society of India is testing its first full rover design. Murdoch University’s Mascot Hexapod replaces wheels with six “legs”. Check out the video for an early version of their rover in action:

Science teachers from New South Wales and South Australia have also joined the expedition as part of Mars Society of Australia’s Spaceward Bound program. Modeled after a now-dormant Nasa program, Spaceward Bound gets science teachers involved in field research to experience the practice of science and space exploration. The teachers work side by side with the rest of the expedition and then develop ways to integrate their experiences into the science curriculum.