JARNTIMARRA-1:
SELECTING AN AUSTRALIAN MARS ANALOGUE RESEARCH SITE

Jonathan D. A. Clarke and Graham Mann
Department of Geology, Australian National University, ACT 0200
School of Information Technology, Murdoch University, Murdoch, WA

 

ABSTRACT

In 2001 the Mars Society Australia carried out a study to select areas with Mars analogue research potential. Electronic discussion between members of the MSA highlighted a number of these, especially in South Australia and the Northern Territory. Sites were nominated on the basis of scientific relevance, range of terrain types, and visual resemblance to Mars. The two week long Jarntimarra-1 expedition in October-November of the same year visited these sites and evaluated them in terms of their Mars analogue potential.

The survey team filled in a database information sheet at each site, recording information of the site name, date visited, coordinates, ownership, access, risks, maps, geology, climate, flora/fauna, history, analogue value and references. These provided for factual entries in the Jarntimarra database. Comparative judgements with respect to MSA's specific needs were made on a separate assessment sheet with a list of 9 scientific, 8 engineering, 7 logistic, and 8 visual criteria.

The expedition noted that most of the assessed sites fell within the boundaries of only six 200-km diameter circles. These circles are equivalent to the area that could be easily explored of a simulated Mars base, given a vehicle capable of extended traverses. Each zone was rated on 5-point scale according to the above specific characteristics with engineering and science factors being given double weighting. Moon Plain, Woomera and Arkaroola regions achieved equal ranking as the most attractive sites.

Further examination led to the Arkaroola region in the North Flinders Ranges being selected because its international scientific reputation and history of Mars analogue research. Previous Specific Mars analogue research in the region has been three-fold, focusing on aeolian landforms, extremophiles, and remote sensing. Studies of aeolian landforms compared Martian dunes at Nili Petra with terrestrial dunes at Gurra Gurra Waterhole in the Strzelecki Desert. The extremophile work found radiation-resistant thermophiles in the Paralana hot spring which is characterised by high levels of radon gas. The area has been used in remote sensing experiments comparing hyperspectral imagery from the alteration halo surrounding the Mount Painter fossil hydrothermal system with ground truth from a hand-held spectrometer. This last study is particularly relevant to detecting the presence of such systems on Mars, which are believed to be good localities to search for microfossils. Potential Mars analogue geoscience research in the area may include palaeontology, geomorphology and regolith studies. The Proterozoic sediments of the area are known to host silicified microfossils and the sinters of the Mt. Gee fossil hydrothermal system show potential for microfossil preservation. Geomorphological and regolith studies include evolution of the alluvial fans on the eastern flank of the Flinders Ranges, nature of mound springs of Lake Frome, and landscape evolution of the northern Flinders Ranges, where uplift has led to partial exhumation and dissection of ancient land surfaces buried beneath Cretaceous cover. The finally, the area includes a wide range of surfaces, including boulder-strewn stream beds, gibber plains, salt lakes, sand dunes, gorges and very rugged hills.

An ideal site for the habitat was found on the gravel plains to the east of the Arkaroola zone's central point, between the eastern side of the northern Flinders Ranges and Lake Frome. This will allow easy access to sites in the Flinders Ranges proper and on the plains that surround Lake Frome. It will also simplify logistics, as a well-maintained, unsealed road runs up the eastern margin of the ranges, joining the Strzelecki Track to the north and the Barrier Highway to the south. The exact site will be decided upon during the Jarntimarra-2 expedition.

INTRODUCTION

This paper outlines the process used by the Mars Society Australia (MSA) in selecting an area to construct MARS-OZ, the Australian Mars analogue research station. This process led to the selection of the Arkaroola region in the northern Flinders Ranges of South Australia as the prime site. The paper also outlines potential research that can be performed at MARS-OZ. The material is based largely on the MARS-OZ proposal document. Details of MARS-OZ can be found in Clarke (2002c).

OBJECTIVES FOR MARS-OZ

Why build Mars Analogue Research Stations?

The nature and rationale for Mars Analogue Research Stations (MARS) are found on the Mars Society’s web page (Mars Society, undated).

"In order to help develop key knowledge needed to prepare for human Mars exploration, and to inspire the public by making tangible the vision of human exploration of Mars, the Mars Society has initiated the Mars Analog Research Station (MARS) project. A global program of Mars exploration operations research, the MARS project will include four Mars base-like habitats located in deserts in the Canadian Arctic, the American southwest, the Australian outback, and Iceland. In these Mars-like environments, we will launch a program of extensive long-duration geology and biology field exploration operations conducted in the same style and under many of the same constraints as they would on the Red Planet. By doing so, we will start the process of learning how to explore on Mars.

"Mars Analog Research Stations are laboratories for learning how to live and work on another planet. Each is a prototype of a habitat that will land humans on Mars and serve as their main base for months of exploration in the harsh Martian environment…."

The MARS are designed to meet three specific goals. The same web site states these as:

  • "The Stations will serve as an effective testbed for field operations studies in preparation for human missions to Mars specifically. They will help develop and allow tests of key habitat design features, field exploration strategies, tools, technologies, and crew selection protocols, that will enable and help optimize the productive exploration of Mars by humans. In order to achieve this, each Station must be a realistic and adaptable habitat."
  • "The Stations will serve as useful field research facilities at selected Mars analog sites on Earth, ones that will help further our understanding of the geology, biology, and environmental conditions on the Earth and on Mars. In order to achieve this, each Station must provide safe shelter and be an effective field laboratory."
  • "The Stations will generate public support for sending humans to Mars. They will inform and inspire audiences around the world. As the Mars Society's flagship program, the MARS project that will serve as the foundation of a series of bold steps that will pave the way to the eventual human exploration of Mars."  

MSA’s aim is to establish the MARS-OZ in the immediate future. It will operate in conjunction with three other MSA programs: the Rover with a unique utility configuration, the MARSskin analogue mechanical counter-pressure space suit, and the SAFMARS satellite communications system (Mars Society Australia 2001).

SITE SELECTION

Assessment Criteria for Analogue Sites

There are numerous sites in Australia with Mars analogue value. Electronic discussion between members of the MSA revealed many of these in all Australian Sates. Sites were nominated on the basis of scientific interest, range of environments suitable for testing equipment, and visual resemblance to Mars. The most attractive sites were in central Australia, and most could be visited in a single 4WD trek. The purpose of the Jarntimarra-1 expedition was to visit and evaluate these sites in terms of their Mars analogue potential.

Evaluating the sites

The Jarntimarra-1 expedition (Mann et al. In press) spent two weeks in the field in October-November 2001 and visited a wide range of sites (Figure 1). These are listed in Table 1. The expedition route is shown in Figure 2. Every effort was made to obtain permission from the stakeholders, owners or custodians of the selected land before the visit took place, though in all cases the visits were non-intrusive.

FIGURE 1 - Jarntimarra-1 expedition on location at The Breakaways, Coober Pedy.

TABLE 1 - Sites visited during Jarntimarra-1

At each site the survey crew filled in a database information sheet. This was a set of 13 prompts for each field in the database: name, date, latitude/longitude, ownership, access, risks, maps, geology, climate, flora/fauna, history, analogue value and references. These provided for factual entries in the Jarntimarra database. To record comparative judgements with respect to the MSA's specific needs there was a separate assessment sheet with a list of 9 scientific and 8 engineering criteria, favouring sites that have intrinsic scientific value and offering a range of conditions in which to test analogue vehicles, spacesuits and other equipment. There was also a set of 7 logistical criteria relating to the distance from facilities and practical difficulty of operations and 8 visual criteria, reflecting the public relations requirement for the site to photograph as if it were the Martian surface (Table 2).

TABLE 2 - Ranking criteria for examined sites.

FIGURE 2 - Route of the Jarntimarra-1 expedition (from Mann et al. in press)

Selecting the regions

A number of key issues for MSA were resolved during a three-day conference at Arkaroola village at the end of Jarntimarra-1. The expedition found that most of the assessed sites fell within the boundaries of only six 200-km diameter circles (Figure 3). The significance of these exploration zones is that each specifies a set of features within easy reach of one simulated Mars mission, given a vehicle capable of extended traverses. If the centre of a circle represents a habitat landing site, all the features within that zone would be accessible by sorties of no more than 100km. Each of these six centres represents a possible "landing site" for MARS-OZ.

Based on the collective experience gained while filling in the site assessment sheets, each zone was rated on 5-point scale according to the above specific characteristics. Engineering and science scores then were doubled to reflect their importance relative to the other criteria in the total score. On this basis, the Moon Plain, Woomera and Arkaroola zones achieved equal ranking.

FIGURE 3 - The six prime regions selected during Jarntimarra-1 (after Mann et al. in press)

To support the goal of recommending a premier site for the 2002-2003 season, the tie was broken by considering the arguments of individual expedition members advocating each zone. Eventually the case for the Arkaroola region prevailed by virtue of its unique combination of logistical convenience (hospitable base at nearby Arkaroola village; 8 hours road travel from Adelaide; 1200m all-weather airstrip at Balcanoona), international scientific reputation and Mars-like geology. Specific Mars analogue research in the region has been three-fold, focusing on aeolian landforms, extremophiles, and remote sensing. Studies of aeolian landforms compared Martian dunes at Nili Petra with terrestrial dunes at Gurra Gurra Waterhole in the Strzelecki Desert (Bishop 1999, 2001). The extremophile work found radiation-resistant thermophiles in the Paralana hot spring which is characterised by high levels of radon gas (Anitori et al. 2001, now in press in Astrobiology). The area has been used in remote sensing experiments comparing hyperspectral infrared imagery from the alteration halo surrounding the Mount Painter fossil hydrothermal system with ground truth from a hand-held spectrometer (Thomas 2001). This last study is particularly relevant to detecting the presence of such systems on Mars, which are believed to be good localities to search for microfossils. Potential Mars analogue geoscience research in the area may include palaeontology, geomorphology and regolith studies. The Proterozoic sediments of the area are known to host silicified microfossils and the sinters of the Mt. Gee fossil hydrothermal system show potential for microfossil preservation. Geomorphological and regolith studies include evolution of the alluvial fans on the eastern flank of the Flinders Ranges, nature of mound springs of Lake Frome, and landscape evolution of the northern Flinders Ranges, where uplift has led to partial exhumation and dissection of ancient land surfaces buried beneath Cretaceous cover. The finally, the area includes a wide range of surfaces, including boulder-strewn stream beds, gibber plains, salt lakes, sand dunes, gorges and very rugged hills.

An ideal site for the habitat was found on the gravel plains to the east of Arkaroola (Figure 4), between the eastern side of the northern Flinders Ranges and Lake Frome. This will allow easy access to sites in the Flinders Ranges proper and on the plains that surround Lake Frome. It will also simplify logistics, as a well-maintained, unsealed road runs up the eastern margin of the ranges, joining the Strzelecki Track to the north and the Barrier Highway to the south. The exact site for MARS-OZ will be decided upon during a further expedition (Jarntimarra-2) which will include discussion with the land holders.

FIGURE 4 - Rocky alluvial outwash from the Flinders Ranges (background), east of Arkaroola. This landscape is typical of the likely site for MARS-OZ.

THE NATURE OF ANALOGUE RESEARCH

The purpose of Mars analogue research is illustrated by a further quote from the Mars Society web page (Mars Society, undated) which describes the operational philosophy of MARS:

"Each station will serve as a field base to teams of four to six crew members: geologists, astrobiologists, engineers, mechanics, physicians and others, who [will] live for weeks to months at a time in relative isolation in a Mars analog environment. Mars analogs can be defined as locations on Earth where some environmental conditions, geologic features, biological attributes or combinations thereof may approximate in some specific way those thought to be encountered on Mars, either at present or earlier in that planet's history. Studying such sites leads to new insights into the nature and evolution of Mars, the Earth, and life.

"However, in addition to providing scientific insight into our neighboring world, such analog environments offer unprecedented opportunities to carry out Mars analog field research in a variety of key scientific and engineering disciplines that will help prepare humans for the exploration of that planet. Such research is vitally necessary. For example, it is one thing to walk around a factory test area in a new spacesuit prototype and show that a wearer can pick up a wrench - it is entirely another to subject that same suit to two months of real field work. Similarly, psychological studies of human factors issues, including isolation and habitat architecture are also only useful if the crew being studied is attempting to do real work."

Such work is always analogue in nature, Earth is not Mars. As Boucher (2002) writes:

"Mars analogs are sites on the Earth where environmental conditions, geologic features, biological attributes, or combinations thereof approximate in some specific way those possibly encountered on Mars at present or earlier in that planet's history. No place on Earth is truly like Mars. Although Mars can be characterized at present as a cold desert, not even the polar deserts of the Earth achieve the extremes in minimum temperature, dryness, low atmospheric pressure and harsh radiation conditions that the surface of Mars currently experiences. Many aspects of the geologic and potential biologic evolution of Mars are likely to have been different or remain uncertain enough that any comparison with the Earth must be conducted with caution. The Earth, however, is our home planet and a world presenting a broad diversity of environments, geologic features and biology. It provides an important reference for studying other planets, a basis for conducting comparative studies critically. "Mars analogs", therefore, are not to be equated to any counterpart on Mars, but are to be viewed instead as an opportunity on our planet for possible approximations."

RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

Bearing these principles in mind, research carried out at MARS-OZ is envisaged to focus on, but will not be confined to, four main areas. These are engineering, science, environmental systems, data management, and human factors. At this stage the research projects are tentative only, indicating more the range of possibilities rather than the final detailed studies. Nor are these projects necessarily concurrent, as MARS-OZ has a provisional working life of at least 5 years.

Engineering

There are at least four major topics for engineering research. The diverse landscape of the Arkaroola region allows these topics to be explored in a wide range of terrains.

  • The MARS-OZ habitat and associated structures. The habitat configuration is itself a major engineering research project and evaluation of its function and practicality will form a key part of engineering research. Included in this work will be issues such as internal configuration of the habitat and the "urban architecture" of MARS-OZ, which will consist of the two modules, power facility, and various inflatables.
  • Communications. There are three levels of communications necessary for MARS-OZ; short, medium, and long range. Short-range is between crewmembers on simulated extra vehicular activity (EVA), between them and the Rover and between them and the habitat. Medium range will be between the Rover and the habitat when the Rover is on traverse. Long-range will be between the Rover and habitat and a simulated mission control, either in the nearest capital city or possibly at the support base. It will also provide a link to the outside world. SAFMARS is the chosen system for long range communications, medium range will be some form of off-the-shelf HF system and short range an off the shelf UHF system. Experimentation will be needed to develop the best protocols for the different levels of the communications systems.
  • Dust management. Mars and Arkaroola are dusty environments. MARS-OZ will allow documentation of the effect of dust on mechanical and electronic equipment and testing of dust management strategies.
  • Rover. The Rover will play a key role in MARS-OZ. Unlike other analogue pressurised rovers, the MSA Rover is compact in size, features a utility layout that greatly increases its flexibility for operations, and will eventually have a robot arm. Important questions that need to be addressed are how to best dock the Rover to the habitat for crew and sample transfer, effective range and endurance, and emergency procedures. The Rover will also be tested on a range of terrains, including rocky, sandy, and firm, to study mobility and recovery procedures.
  • MARSskin. The analogue mechanical counter-pressure suit is another key feature of the MARS-OZ program and a point of difference between MARS-OZ and other MARS. Evaluation of the utility of such suits, possibly in contrast with analogue pressurised suits, should be part of the research program.
  • Robotics. There are two obvious possibilities in this field. The first is the design and use of remote manipulators on the Rover and possibly on the habitat. The second is the use of remotely controlled or autonomous vehicles, whether surface or airborne, in exploration. They could be evaluated in a range of roles, including as an adjunct to, in support of, or independent to crewed exploration.

Science

  • Geology. The Arkaroola area is a region of considerable geological interest (Coats and Blissett 1971, Sprigg 1984). Geological research in the Arkaroola area could focus on no fewer than five main areas. These are the fossil hydrothermal systems of the Mt. Painter complex (Figure 5), the history of evolution recorded in the Neoproterozoic sediments of the Adelaide Geosycline (especially testing the "Snowball Earth" hypothesis), the geomorphological evolution of the Northern Flinders Ranges, and the Cainozoic history of the Lake Frome Plain. Some of these deposits, such as the mobile sand dunes at Gurra Gurra Waterhole, have already been used as Mars analogues.
  • Palaeontology. The Neoproterozoic sediments in the region contain many stromatolitic horizons and cherts that may contain microfossils. The younger Neoproterozoic successions host the world famous Ediacara fauna, the controversial assemblage that is believed to represent the first assemblage of large animals on earth. Finally, although not of great relevance to Mars, the Cainozoic sediments host several important sites for Cainozoic vertebrates.
  • Meteorology. Studies into the climate of the site would be critical for obtaining baseline data for the ecological, environmental monitoring and dust management research projects.
  • Hydrology. There are a number of hydrological issues that could be studied. These include the hydrology of the Paralana Hot Spring, the hydrology and hydrochemistry of uranium-bearing waters of the Lake Frome Plain, and the mound springs along the eastern margin of Lake Frome. The Honeymoon uranium mine lies within the selected area and there may be corporate sponsorship of studies of the geochemistry of some of these waters
  • Biology. Numerous opportunities exist for the study of dry land ecology, endolithic and cryptoendolithic organisms.
  • Microbiology. The Paralana Hot Spring (Figure 6) contains a population of extremophiles that are only just beginning to be studied. The extremophile populations of the various salt lakes in the study area are largely unknown. Yet another aspect of microbiology is the microbiology of the internal habitat environment.
  • Geophysics. Many of the faults in the Arkaroola area are seismically active. One potential research topic would be to establish a local seismometer net to pinpoint the zones of greatest activity. Another project would be the monitoring of radon emissions along faults and fracture systems.
  • Remote sensing. Potential projects include evaluation and comparison of various remote sensing systems for mineral mapping including Aster, HYMAP, and LANDSAT. Ground truthing of remotely sensed data is also important, using instruments such as PIMA and especially actual XRD analyses of surface mineralogy.

FIGURE 5 - Haematitic hydrothermal silica deposits at Mount Gee.

FIGURE 6 - The radioactive Paralana hot spring, an extremophile habitat.

Environmental systems

  • Life support. While MARS-OZ is not a totally enclosed system the aim is to recycle water and waste as much as possible. Various mechanical, chemical, and biological systems can be trialed as a series of research programs.
  • Waste management. Refuse and solid human waste management will be a key issue on Mars and is also important in any remote installation on earth, including Arkaroola. Various strategies for minimising waste production should be tested. One attractive option for disposal of solid human waste is high temperature incineration, which would produce a low volume residue potentially useful in horticulture.
  • Horticulture. The use of greenhouses for horticulture is predicted for Mars. Research at MARS-OZ can examine plants grown in soil and hydroponically under simulated Martian light conditions. Related research can focus on conditioning simulated Martian regolith to a level where it can support plant growth. The level of experiments can vary from test scale plots to fully self-sufficient gardens. The greenhouses could also be used to dispose of solid human waste and form part of the recycling system. Finally, the psychological impact of even small horticultural impacts on a small enclosed group of people can be evaluated.

Information systems

  • Data acquisition. As on Mars, MARS-OZ will acquire large volumes of data in terms of images, measurements, and observations. How best to acquire this data, especially in the field (by video, digital camera, note-pad, or voice recognition) need to be investigated.
  • Data management. Management of the data is another issue. How much processing should be carried out on site before transmitting it on?
  • Data transmission. How is the data best transmitted? By SAFMARS, or will other technology (such as polar orbiting mobile phone network or MARISAT) be required? How might the lessons obtained from these studies be best applied to Mars?
  • How can existing spatial information necessary for field operations (position, topographic, geological, remotely sensed imagery, for example) be best accessed by crew in the field?

Human factors

  • Human-machine interfaces. Some of the questions that arise here include the user friendliness of the habitat, comparative studies of vertical as opposed to horizontal habitat architecture, and when to chose between human and robot operations for a particular task.
  • Psychology. This is a key area of research, although the duration spent by any team in MARS-OZ is unlikely to match those of any Mars mission. Questions suitable for study might include how mental states and perception change over a period, and how these reflect the interaction with the physical, technological, and social environment.
  • Workload. Workload has been a key issue on some long duration space flights, beginning with Skylab (Cooper 1977). It has also been a factor in some activities at FMARS. Workload issues will determine such features as crew size and the amount of on site analysis that may be possible. Excessive workload would become an issue regarding crew health and safety, as well as efficiency. MARS-OZ can host research that specifically evaluates these questions.
  • Group dynamics. As with psychology, the duration of the missions planned for MARS-OZ are not likely to be equivalent to those on Mars, at least not initially. But issues of crew size, age structure, gender balance, special relationships within crews, rituals (meals, entertainment sessions), relaxation and workload can all be studied. As the MARS-OZ program matures it may be worth considering longer term stays in the habitat to more validly research these questions.
  • Research methods. To what extent will it be possible to analyse data and samples in the field? At one extreme the crew could simply collect material for analysis back at the host institution. At the other extreme there could be considerable onsite analysis. In the early stages of MARS-OZ the laboratory facilities in the habitat are likely to be spartan. Later, research equipment may be added, allowing this different approaches to be investigated

Personnel

We believe that a useful method of carrying out research in MARS-OZ is the use of honours students. Most honours projects in the biological sciences can be completed in a 2-6 week field period, which fits in well with the 1-2 month crew rotation of FMARS and MDRS. Furthermore, honours theses are completed within 12 months, which opens the way for rapid publication of results. Supervisors of honours students can carry out longer-term research projects associated with MARS-OZ, and I suggest that individual projects be components of larger research programs coordinated by senior researchers. Visiting researchers from overseas should also be welcome participants.

Outreach

Jarntimarra-1 proved an outreach success. Numerous radio, television and print interviews were performed by participants during the expedition, which was covered in Australia and internationally. There have also been a number of follow up stories in a range of media outlets subsequently. The profile of the Mars Society was significantly raised, new members were recruited, and the Australian community introduced to the concept of analogue research.

Construction and deployment of MARS-OZ will be another opportunity for outreach. MDRS formed the cornerstone of a display at the Kennedy Space Center. E-MARS is currently open to public display at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. MARS-OZ could likewise serve an education role during it construction. Because the MARS-OZ concept is more mobile than that of MDRS and E-MARS, it may be possible to transport the complex round the country and use it for education and outreach in different localities.

Arkaroola Resort has a long history of educational-related tourism, including geological, environmental, and astronomical themes. The MARS-OZ complex would complement these very well, highlighting another aspect of the scientific significance of the region. Ideally, a visitor centre would be constructed at Arkaroola Report, this would build a relationship with the operators educate the public, and allow the public to follow activities in the complex. The resort could also control visitors to the site.

CONCLUSIONS

The Jarntimarra-1 expedition reviewed a diversity of Mars analogue sites in central Australia and identified the Arkaroola region in the northern Flinders Ranges as the one most suitable for the initial siting of MARS-OZ. Final site selection will require a separate expedition, Jarntimarra-2. Once MARS-OZ is completed (Figure 7), it will provide a platform for a wide range of analogue research in fields as diverse as engineering, biology, geology, human factors, environmental systems, and information management.

FIGURE 7 - View of the completed MARS-OZ facility. "Artwork by Jozef Michalek.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

We would like to thank the entire Jarntimarra-1 team who were involved in the site selection process. Without them this paper would not have been possible. The expedition was funded largely by the generous support of Starchaser Industries Ltd. We would also like to thank the artistic vision of Jozef Michalek in producing Figure 7 and the staff of the Arkaroola resort, especially the Sprigg family.

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Bishop, M.A. 2001. Seasonal Variation of Crescentic Dune Morphology and Morphometry, Strzelecki-Simpson Desert, Australia. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 26, pp.783-791.

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