Postcards from Mars

Into the summer we go

Matthias Beach installing polycarbonate panels at the SAM Mars yard, Biosphere 2

With the completion of the sculpted Mars yard and third Analog Astronaut Conference hosted by the Biosphere 2, the SAM crew moves into its second summer of continued effort, with a number projects unfolding at the same time. Last year Matthias Beach, Sean Gellenbeck, Tasha Coelho, and Mason Robbins worked June through September to complete renovation of the former Biosphere 2 rain forest greenhouse in preparation for installation of the SAM Mars yard, with an expanded and far more functional workshop for continued fabrication and construction.

Now, Matthias and Luna are completing the replacement of the original polycarbonate with new, darker tinted panels for less total thermal gain. The old panels had become brittle and were broken in many places, some sections blown out from strong, Arizona winds. With the new roof installed in July of 2022, all new wiring and rebuilt west wall in the summer of 2023, this begins the final effort to give this 1980s construct a new purpose for the next decade or two.

When it’s too hot to be on the scissor lift in the Arizona sun, Matthias is working in the SAM lower lung, replacing the original, rigid electrical conduit with Carflex, restoring the 3-way light function, and replacing the original florescent lights with modern LEDs for less power consumption and greater reliability. Luna is assisting Matthias and painting conducting the final scraping, sanding, priming, and painting of the lung walls and pan rim. This is the last, major interior restoration of the original Test Module and lung.

Kai, Matthias, and Luna continue to renovate the SAM Operations Center with the recent installation of a custom built butcher block countertop, sink, microwave, fridge, and more while Luna brings order to the chaos of the storage room following a juggernaut April and May.

Sean and Luna are designing and mid June fabricating the third prototype of the hydroponics rack. Once proved with a full growth cycle, three additional units will be built to complete this phase of bioregeneration capacity building with the ultimate goal of reproducing Linda Leigh’s single crew member, three weeks stay in SAM with all air fully recycled by plants.

We are honored to have Dr. James Knox, a former, career NASA aerospace engineer and principal developer of the CO2 scrubber for the International Space Station now working with us to design a custom scrubber for SAM. This original design and fabrication, lead by Sean, will enable us to engage full mechanical air recycling such that we can move from physico-chemical to bioregeneration in a single mission—the underlying goal for both the SIMOC simulator and the real world SAM research station.

Bindhu is updating the SAM Operations Manual, crew “cuff notes”, and working to establish an umbrella IRB. This is imperative for ability to engage multiple science objectives at SAM that carry data relevant to human related research objectives.

Tasha is working with Kai to develop the foundation for an educational curriculum around the new geologically accurate Mars yard such that primary and secondary school kids might enjoy an hour or a half day at SAM exploring the Mars yard through experiential learning and discovery. The same foundation will also apply to more advanced exploration by SAM crews, drones, and rovers.

Needless to say, we remain engaged!

As with the prior three summers, these photos essays will be reduced in frequency until September or October.

Stay cool! And stay tuned!

By |2024-06-05T23:13:50+00:00May 31st, 2024|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

Blue sunset on Mars

Blue sunset over Mars by NASA Curiosity rover

On July 4, 2023, NASA’s Perseverance Rover shot this sunset photo on planet Mars. The unusual bluish color is caused by the composition of the thin atmosphere. On Earth, the sunlight interacts with mainly nitrogen and oxygen. On Mars, the sunlight interacts with iron-rich dust that hangs in the atmosphere. This ultimately scatters lower-frequency red light around the sky during the day. At sunset though, the red light is scattered out and mostly blue light remains — not unlike a hazy day on Earth with smoke or blowing dust.

Read the full essay at Sky Lights by Dan Heim.

By |2024-05-21T01:52:25+00:00May 21st, 2024|Categories: Education|0 Comments

Inside the Movement to Bring the Arts to Outer Space

"Inside the Movement to Bring the Arts to Outer Space" by Christopher Cokinos for Esquire

Inside the Movement to Bring the Arts to Outer Space
by Christopher Cokinos
May 16, 2024

This spring, a group of creatives simulated a lunar mission in the Arizona desert. What they found may challenge your understanding of how astronauts should spend their days.

[In] extreme environments like space, we should demand more than just enjoyment. The very things said from and about the moon can be strengthened with artistic technique. How we render the moon will either replicate our worst tendencies on Earth or foster a respect for the timeworn beauty of this companion world. From simulating living in a lunar habitat to talking with astronauts who will fly around the moon next year, I am obsessed with investigating how we can return to the moon to live and work while using the tools that artists know. Because those tools can help make life worth living.

Read the full article …

By |2024-05-22T06:56:35+00:00May 16th, 2024|Categories: In the news|0 Comments

Analog Astronaut Conference 2024 concludes

Once again, the Analog Astronaut Conference was a complete success.

This year, as with the prior two years held at Biosphere 2 and the first on-line, brought together a wonderful assembly of space exploration enthusiasts from all walks of life—aerospace engineers and artists, seasoned professionals and hobbyists, medical surgeons, astronomers, researchers, students and astronauts too.

The Biosphere 2 was once again proud to host this annual event. And the SAM staff worked hard to meet incredible construction goals in time for the conference attendees to enjoy their time at the new Mars yard and reduced gravity simulator.

Photos coming soon!

By |2024-06-06T00:04:47+00:00May 12th, 2024|Categories: In the news|0 Comments

Discovering the Mars yard at SAM

Dr. Cameron Smith, anthropologist and developer of pressure suits at Smith Aerospace Garments explores the new Mars yard at SAM while encumbered by one of his pressure suits, the same worn by crew members at SAM for their EVAs. In this short film Dr. Smith exits the functional airlock of the SAM habitat and then engages the reduced gravity simulator set to the Mars gravity of one-third that on Earth. He explores sedimentary rock layers, an ancient lava tube, a geologically recent rock fall, and gypsum veins.

By |2024-05-17T18:18:35+00:00May 9th, 2024|Categories: Videos|0 Comments

Photos of the SAM Mars yard, May 2024

The Mars yard at SAM is complete, save the near-future introduction of crushed basalt and basalt boulders to cover the currently exposed concrete slab. The Reduced Gravity Simulator is fully operational, with the prototype built principally from wood being rebuilt in welded aluminum over the summer for a lighter, more stiff frame and smoother operation.

By |2024-06-06T21:52:27+00:00May 3rd, 2024|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

Sculpting Mars at SAM: Days 12-15

Painter Danni gives bold, three dimensional form to the carved, simulated stones at SAM, Biosphere 2

And then came the scenics, a breed of artist unlike the plasterers or the sculptors before them. Quiet like the brushes they employ, subdued like the hints of red, butterscotch, and gray applied, Juan, Danni, and Christina also see the world in three dimensions—not as massive blocks of carved foam or layers of sprayed concrete, but in concentric applications of paint that build depth in color through time.

Referring to the same set of laminated photos as the two prior teams, the scenics apply dark hues beneath overhangs to create permanent shadow, and they create a sense of time through the hi-lights on the leading edges of rock ledges, mineral stains from long forgotten (even if geologically recent) movements of water. And when Danica or Kai would note a synthetic rock surface too bright or too bold for the atmosphere of Mars, within minutes color theory became color reality and the issue was resolved without hesitation or complaint for the second or third effort on that same section of the SAM Mars yard.

By |2024-05-05T21:24:05+00:00May 2nd, 2024|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

Sculpting Mars at SAM: Day 9

First coat of shotcrete applied to the Mars yard at SAM, Biosphere 2

The transformation of Polystyrene foam blocks into a Mars landscape requires vision, skill in sculpting, shooting concrete, and painting; and effective management. The first and last are exemplified by Red Hen founder Danica Vallone who maintains a relationship with some 250 individuals working in set design and construction, and her brother and production manager Demian Vallone who brings patience, diligence, and hands-on collaboration to the construction floor. At the SAM Mars yard Danica and her team have transformed drawings and photographs into three dimensions, demonstrating a deep understanding of form, texture, and color and the physical tools used to employ them.

The sculptors (as noted in prior blog entries) hold what is perhaps the most challenging of the processes— making those first cuts into the massive blocks of foam with a vision toward the end product that they may never see. This process is principally one of subtracting material, cutting into square blocks to remove initially large and then increasingly smaller pieces using hot wire knives, chain saws, horse brushes, three pronged picks, and an assembly of home-built hand and power tools. Material is added too, building beyond the otherwise imposed limit of a wall or corner, as with the rockfall in the southeast corner of the SAM Mars yard.

With the shapes established, the plaster crew covers the foam with a thin layer of a custom blend of Poly-bond structural concrete, sand, and adhesives designed to bond to foam. This concrete is tinted to establish a base color such that the final, painter crew can work from that base color with less effort and material, as compared to starting from a standard concrete gray.

While Hollywood sets built from foam are typically covered with 1/8″ concrete, thicker for areas on which actors might walk, the SAM Mars yard is 1/4″ nominal with the west wall K-rock covered in expanded steel, steel mesh, and in some areas up to two inches hand-troweled concrete.

Three sculptors were at SAM for eight days. The four plasterers are slated for just two days (starting today). And as of this coming Sunday two painters will be at SAM for four days. Each crew brings to this project some of the finest talent in Hollywood, with individuals who have two or three generations in skill and experience in their respective trades. The quality of production against an impossible timeline has been truly awe inspiring and points directly to Red Hen’s ability to manage such a complex endeavor.

BELOW: Luna Powell scatters real stones obtained from a local quarry on the shelves and outcrops of the north wall as the plaster team applies the first layer of shocrete to the south wall of the SAM Mars yard. The blue color is a layer of “Weldcrete”, a kind of chemical adhesive that helps the Polybond-based shotcrete adhere to the foam.

By |2024-05-05T21:24:44+00:00April 26th, 2024|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

Sculpting Mars at SAM: Day 8

Director of Research for SAM Kai Staats applies nylon rope to define the pathway of gypsum.

(Above) Kai Staats installs simulated pathways for Mars gypsum deposits—nylon rope pinned to foam blocks to be covered by shotcrete and then hand painted, perhaps encrusted with real minerals embedded in an epoxy resin in a later phase.

The sculptors completed their work in foam, applying final textures and geological interfaces while SAM team member Matthias applied expanded steel and mesh to the K-Rock feature, reinforcing the areas on which SAM crew members might walk while on EVA. The existing concrete slab was covered by rose paper before Demian of Red Hen sprayed the blue Weldcrete adhesive, providing a chemical adhesion layer between the foam and shotcrete.

By |2024-04-28T18:00:25+00:00April 25th, 2024|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

The Color Palette of Mars

A comparison of the raw image, corrected image, and Earth-light image from a Curiosity rover photograph. Courtesy NASA / Dr. Jim Bell.

Color calibration target for Mastcam-Z on Mars rover Perseverance

In the SAM Mars yard at Biosphere 2, the sculpted foam provides the robust shape of sedimentary layers, lava, solidified dunes, and rockfalls that define the very challenge of the geologist to unravel time. The application of the concrete gives solid form and texture to the otherwise too fragile structure made principally of trapped air. And while the two of these alone are ample to give visitors to this Mars yard a story to discover, it is the subtle shifts in color that make clear the differentiations of an ancient lake bed from the unconformity on which it lies or the iron concretions about to break free from the shelf on which they lie.

But when all the images captured by rovers on Mars for more than forty years are digital in origin and processed by computers, How does one know the true colors of Mars?

We called upon the distant Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, reviewing myriad photos they have generated against the same color metrics applied to the photos received on Earth by NASA and countless university students and researchers. The on-board Mars rover color calibration targets provide a baseline to inform how one might adjust the pixel values, from the raw image to a color balance given the atmospheric conditions of that day, to what that landscape might look like if on Earth instead. The latter becomes important as we compare features on Earth to those on Mars in order to ascertain their origin.

More carving, color selection, and completing the lava tube at SAM, Biosphere 2

SAM team member and planetary geology student Tasha Coelho built an image deck based on her work in Dr. Jim Bell’s lab at the School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University. Luna Powell then prepared six sample tints for the baseline concrete color upon which the painters hired by Danica Vallone of Red Hen Industries will push and pull highlights and shadows to give this one-of-a-kind construct its own life.

By |2024-05-05T21:46:30+00:00April 24th, 2024|Categories: Construction|0 Comments
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