Kiwimars 2012: Kiwis doing what Kiwis should

By Elf Eldridge 25/04/2012

An example of Kiwis participating in the sort of forward-thinking science that we need to attract  and retain talent in New Zealand is the 2012 Kiwimars crew. Supported by the ‘Kiwispace Foundation‘, Kiwimars is a 2 week expedition where 4 New Zealanders (and 2 Australians) travel to NASA’s Mars Desert Research Station in the deserts of Utah. There they are performing a simulation mars landing, and live life as if they were actively on the red planet.

Whilst there are some insurmountable hurdles, like the gravitational difference between Earth and Mars, every care is taken to make the simulation as realistic as possible. Astronauts have to wear full operational space suits when they leave the ‘hab’ where they live, as well as taking 30 minutes or more in the airlock to ‘decompress’ in preparation for expeditions into the martian environment.Full details of the mission, reports and live feeds from the site can all be accessed here and anyone keen to chat face-to-face with our astronauts live from Utah can do so at Mission Control, hosted by the Carter Observatory in Wellington.

Why have I picked Kiwimars as a shining example of NZ’s science future? Simply because the Kiwimars crew are not paid scientists. They are not professional researchers, nor do they have a lifetime’s worth of experience or training for this mission. They are members of the public with a passion for space and a desire for NZ to play a part in overcoming one of mankind’s next gigantic leaps forward – the human exploration of another planet. And are doing it.

They didn’t wait for government funding, public interest, or approval from NZ science’s governing bodies – they have raised funds (in large part from off-shore), organised the mission, co-ordinated outreach activites and integrated it into the NZ school science curriculum as a resource for teachers because they believed it needed to be done.

Their ambition doesn’t stop at MDRS though, after all they are the 118th crew (although the first from NZ) to participate in this research exercise. They are also attempting a world first by collaborating with the testing of the AoudaX spacesuit by the Austrian space agency in a giant ice cave atop a mountain in Dachstein, Austria. During a series of experiments known as ‘Antipodes’, both Kiwimars and Dachstein respectively will transfer control of their experiments over to the other side of the world via mission control here in Wellington for an hour at a time. This will simulate simultaneous landing parties on the opposite sides of Mars, with NZ acting as mission control from an orbiting satellite, if communications were cut off from Earth (akin to what Michael Collins did for the lunar lander on Apollo 11).

But most importantly (and I say this with absolute confidence as it is an attribute they share with all 3 Kiwibank New Zealanders of the Year), they have encouraged Kiwis young and old to re-consider what scope of science is possible from Aotearoa.* And for this, as much as anything else, they deserve to be commended. And on a day where, as a nation, we reflect on the freedoms our ANZAC veterans fought for all those years ago, I can’t help but feel that the Kiwimars crew are showing their respect by taking full advantage of those freedoms.

Here on Just So Science, myself and fellow space nut, Jared Lee from Onslow College (one of the aforementioned NZYPT competitors), will be taking readers on a journey through the martian and MDRS environments and taking a look at the science behind the Kiwimars and Antipodes missions and experiments.

Safe travels on ANZAC day and see you on mars…

*I most certain do NOT mean to imply that they are the only ones to do this. They’re just my current poster boys and I will make a concerted effort to mention some of the others in the future!