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Diaries from Analog Mars, Part 11: Russian Technology Loves Violence

MSC Banner Diaries Part Eleven

Welcome back to Diaries from Analog Mars. If this is your first visit, consider reading the previous entries here. In part eleven, Jin and Crew 228 conduct an emergency EVA to save equipment from a coming storm, and Jin puts his engineering training to work.

“Before going on a dive, take two minutes to check your equipment. If you’re in a hurry, take five minutes.”

Scuba diving proverb, unknown author

Just as the simulation had really gotten started, it started screeching to a halt, much like a regional flight that takes off and reaches cruising altitude, only to immediately commence its descent. I feel like I haven’t had enough time to truly live on Mars.

It was Sol 8, and we were almost three-quarters of our way through sim.

Dave asked me the other day if I wanted to come back to MDRS. Impulsively, I said ‘no’. But I backtracked and clarified. I do love being at MDRS and would like to come back, but for longer than two weeks. Spending just two weeks here simply doesn’t feel as Martian as something like overwintering in Antarctica, which lasts several months. I would love to spend a future analog rotation in a more isolated place for a longer time, like the FMARS (Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station) on Devon Island, where we don’t have outsiders coming to visit us, breaking our sim on a practically daily basis. It is a question, of course, of the two most important resources in the universe: money and time. I’m also not sure I have the right skills and experience.


But going to MDRS was a definite step in the right direction. I’ve noticed that I write much better here, with fewer distractions and tighter deadlines – I write one of these blog posts per day, each of which takes me about two hours of work. Nevertheless, Diaries from Analog Mars is probably some of the most unfiltered work I’ve ever posted publicly (because I just don’t have the time to deliberate over it) but candidness was part of the point of this project. I would’ve opted for a longer mission if I could, but I do have obligations back on Earth.

Step by step, I’ll get there.

I was woken up early that morning by Dave and Lindsay working on breakfast in the kitchen. They planned to depart on an early EVA at 8 AM, because a storm system was predicted to move in later that day. Dr. Rupert wanted them back in the Hab by 11 AM. Lindsay was leading a second EVA north to the Jotunheim formation to collect more astrobiological samples for study. Instead of collecting regolith as she had before, she would collect endolith rocks, which are rocks with holes and pores in them. These voids inside the rock could provide refuges for microbes, making them useful targets for finding extremophiles in the field.

Lindsay Rutter at the Mars Desert Research Station
Lindsay collects a rock sample from the Jotunheim structure (image taken by David Laude.)

After collecting the rock samples from Jotunheim, Lindsay and Dave drove back to the Hab an hour ahead of schedule, admiring the rock formations along the way. However, when they parked their rovers, the problems started. The storm was approaching. They rushed back into the airlock, and just as the outer door slammed shut, it began to drizzle. What counts as ‘rain’ out here in the desert is minimal – usually, less than ten millimetres of rain falls. Sometimes, rain patters on the roof, but the rest dries up before it hits the ground. Nevertheless, a single drop of rain on a suit visor calls for an immediate abort to the EVA.

We waited five minutes to simulate repressurization of the airlock, then they doffed and stowed their suits. A few minutes later, as we prepared for lunch, Lindsay walked up to the table with worry painted all over her face.

“Guys,” she said, “I think I left my phone on the passenger seat of the rover.”

We couldn’t just run out and get it – that would break sim. I picked up a radio and called Dr. Rupert.

“Shannon, this is Crew 228, over.”

“This is Shannon.”

“Hi Shannon, Lindsay left her phone in the rover. Do we have permission for an emergency EVA to retrieve it? We still have about 45 minutes left in the EVA plan.”

“Yes, you have approval, but because this is an emergency EVA to save valuable equipment.”

Inga volunteered to help Lindsay. They suited up hastily, so we made sure to go through the mnemonic we developed for checking that someone is ready for EVA: CABGL – Comms, Air, Boots, Gloves, and Lights. CABGL is an acronym representing the order in which a suit’s parts should be donned, inspired by scuba diving’s BWRAF (Buoyancy control device, Weights, Restraints, Air, Fins.)

‘Comms’ refers to the radios – make sure that your earpiece and microphone are fastened securely, and that you have a primary and backup radio.

‘Air’ refers to turning on the ventilation fans in the backpack and unplugging it from the charger before putting on.

‘Boots’ is pretty self-explanatory.

‘Gloves’ is also pretty self-explanatory.

It’s a bit more complicated to explain what ‘lights’ is. Night EVAs are prohibited except in very special cases; a few years ago, a crew was permitted to go on a night EVA to study rock fluorescence, but only if they did not wear their helmets. The CABGL acronym came out of a brainstorming session about what would be needed in the event of an emergency requiring a night EVA. ‘Lights’ refers to bringing a source of illumination to see at night, but can also refer to any special equipment needed for an EVA, like a rock hammer – or a smartphone.

We briefly debated over whether we should wait the full five minutes for airlock depressurization or reduce it to two or three minutes to simulate an emergency depressurization. However, emergency depressurization wasn’t something we had discussed in advance, and we weren’t going to waste time debating over it.

For Lindsay, I imagine it must have been five of the longest minutes of the mission.

They power-walked their way out to the parked rovers. They later said that they were seeing raindrops smack into their visors the entire time they were outside. Dave and I watched through the porthole. They bent over the rover briefly, then we saw Lindsay and Inga share a double high-five. We breathed a sigh of relief as they made their way back to the airlock. The phone had been left in a cubby on the dashboard, protected from the rain.

This hammered home an important point for all of us: Mars is unforgiving of mistakes. A moment of natural human forgetfulness could easily turn disastrous in such a hostile environment, with consequences that are much harder to correct than on Earth.

Mars Desert Research Station
A dramatic sunrise over the MDRS facility (image by author.)

Additionally, in such an isolated place, there’s just no hope of getting complicated machines repaired. No Geek Squad, no Best Buy – just whatever skills and materials we have on hand. Later that evening, I started running into issues with my laptop. Sometimes, it would switch windows while I was typing something, then I stopped being able to click on things. I restarted the infernal machine three times. Damn Windows. Eventually, out of frustration (and suspecting that something got stuck in there) I shook the laptop and it started working again.

Inga (who runs Linux, like the legend that she is) introduced me to this wonderful Russian aphorism: “Русская техника любит удар” (pronounced: ‘roos-kaya tyekh-nika lyu-bit oo-dar’.) As you have probably guessed from the title of this post, it translates word-for-word to: “Russian technology loves violence.”

It seems, however, that German technology requires a little more TLC.

Lindsay’s DNA analysis procedure called for mixing special reagents with the regolith samples, shaking them with beads to smash the microbes to pieces, then subjecting the mixture to an acceleration of over 10,000 times the force of gravity to separate the regolith out. The microcentrifuge was required for that last step: it would spin the samples at 14,500 RPM, subjecting them to over 14,100 times the force of gravity. At that acceleration, a 5 gram sample would seem to weigh over 70 kilograms. The centrifuging step would be repeated several times to remove as much regolith as possible, leaving just the proteins and DNA.

Molecular biology is a violent field of science.

Initially, we thought that the microcentrifuge wouldn’t be available to us because the cable had been accidentally thrown out some months ago, during a purge of unnecessary equipment. However, a couple of days before, I had been chatting with Lindsay in the Science Dome and casually examined some of the equipment available. There were a couple of microscopes and a hot plate – nothing special for an average science lab. It then occurred to me that the microcentrifuge probably used the same standard type of cable as the microscopes and hot plate. Perhaps it was my tinkerer instincts at work, gained from years of taking things apart and failing miserably to put them back together. We then talked to Dave (who we call The Wizard for his magical ability to fix anything, hence his position as Crew Engineer), who was confident that if it didn’t use a standard cable, he could jury-rig something.

When Dr. Rupert dropped off the microcentrifuge in the RAM (the engineering module) for us, I shared Lindsay’s excitement that she could finally proceed with her science. It was a cute, round little instrument of German manufacture that wouldn’t have been out of place playing a droid in a Star Wars movie. Lindsay borrowed a cable from one of the microscopes and plugged it in.

It turned on – but the lid wouldn’t open!

After several minutes of trying to get the lid to open, using the emergency lid release to force it open then closing it again seemed to do the trick by resetting the mechanism. It’s a little concerning how many mechanical and software problems can be corrected by turning the device on and off again. Lindsay put in a dummy sample of mud and water and set the centrifuge to subject it to 14,100 g for 60 seconds. The centrifuge’s motor whined as it spooled up to speed, then slowed to a stop afterwards. The sample, which had previously looked like a chocolate milkshake, was now clear with a lump of solids at the bottom.

But because the centrifuge hadn’t seen use in months – or possibly years – we weren’t sure that it was really reaching the speed it said it was. I borrowed a tidbit of knowledge I learned from an internship at Pratt and Whitney Canada (a jet engine manufacturer) and from a machine dynamics class: spinning things vibrate because they can never be perfectly balanced, so they will wobble. At the centrifuge’s top speed of 14,500 RPM, it rotated around 242 times per second, or 242 Hertz. As it wobbled, it would vibrate at that frequency.

I didn’t have a vibration sensor, but I did have a smartphone with a microphone. And what is sound, but vibrations transmitted through the air?

I set the centrifuge to maximum speed and analyzed the sound of its whine as it revved up using an app called Spectroid. Sure enough, at top speed, there was a loud tone at a frequency of 245 Hertz – within one percent of what I’d predicted.

And so in that sol, I applied two essential troubleshooting skills that all engineers must know but that no class will teach: percussive maintenance and power cycling (i.e. giving it a sharp whack and turning it off and on again.) I also learned that having good instincts and hunches count for a lot when solving problems in the real world; that’s the stuff you can’t learn in a classroom.

When I told Dave that all we had to do to get the microcentrifuge working was to borrow a cable from the microscope, he replied, “That’s it?” He sounded disappointed.

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Edited by Evan Plant-Weir