Students, Robots, and Caves – Searching for Life on Alien Planets

Martian Rover “Curiosity”. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Opening a window into the world of science, robotics, and the exploration of alien worlds, Dr. Greg Lyzenga, from the Harvey Mudd College physics department, delivered an exciting talk to Clairbourn students at the Project STAR Science Fair event.

Dr. Lyzenga explained how his students are preparing now for the future of looking for life on Mars. On a table at his side was an actual roving robot used in his students’ work, and he also showed a fascinating video their desert lava-tube cave exploration.

Mars is a fascinating place–everybody wants to know if there was, or is, life on Mars. The Mars rover, “Opportunity,” has been exploring Mars for the last 10 years and was followed by the rover “Curiosity” to find evidence of water on Mars.

Dr. Lyzenga explained that robotic missions are key to exploring Mars because the red planet is a hostile place. It is hard to get to, it is very cold, there is very little atmosphere and lots of radiation, so it is not very hospitable to humans. If life exists, it isn’t likely to be on the surface but somewhere protected like caves.

The surface of Mars includes giant volcanoes–the tallest of which is Olympus Mons. This monster volcano is three times higher than Mount Everest and measures-in at 69,000 feet tall. Scientist hope that cave-like lava tubes exist in these volcanoes, and they plan to explore them someday for signs of life.

The video, showed by Dr. Lyzenga, chronicled his students trips to the Mojave desert to the Pisgah Volcano. It is an interesting place that feels like another planet. There is hardly anything living. While exploring the region looking for caves, they encountered some geologists that directed them to a cave that sounded promising. It turned out to be perfect!

To explore the cave properly, a group of engineering and physics department students worked together to develop and prepare the necessary equipment. The engineers worked on software and robotic elements to allow the rover to navigate and map the cave, and the physics department built a “science package” to mount on the rover that contained a florescent-spectrometer laser for detecting life.

Students often worked all night to ensure the equipment would work properly on-site. They also had to carry their heavy equipment a half-mile over rugged terrain to get to the cave and endured extreme summer temperatures. Thankfully, once inside the lava tubes, the temperature was 30 degrees cooler than the outside air. Additionally, the students were good sports about climbing down into the tubes and having their clothes filled with sand.

At the entrance to the cave, students worked on laptop computers and communicated wirelessly with the rover. The laptop picked up a video feed from a camera mounted on the rover and they recieved mapped data of the obstacles and routes the rover was traveling.

While they were in the cave, the robot discovered some white patches on the walls. By analyzing the reflected laser beam light off of the walls, they were able to identify the material as a mineral formation left behind by the previous presence of water. This summer, the team will continue the project with improvements to the equipment.

Before he took questions from the audience, Dr. Lyzenga shared the thought that students should never wait to think like a scientist. It should start now in school–not someday when and if they get a job in the field of science. To illustrate his point, he shared that former student Alec Storrie-Lombardi won Clairbourn’s Engineering Design Challenge in 2005, and now, nine years later, he is working as an engineer at Space X helping to create cutting-edge space craft.

Q & A Summary from Dr. Lyzenga’s Talk:

Did you lose any robots during the expeditions?
No. When the robot got stuck, someone crawled in on their hands and knees and brought it back.

How did the rover navigate the lava tube?
The rover built a map of the tube as it went. On subsequent visits, they sent the rover on a mission to analyze the walls for signs of life. They did a scouting run first, followed by an exploratory visit.

How did the students keep from get lost in the lava cave?
They use the buddy system. Students have to have a friend with them at all times. They also used GPS to make sure they didn’t get lost.

Why are lava caves cooler than the desert?
The lava rock over the top acts as an insulator. It keeps the temperature constant no matter how hot or cold it is all year round.

How many people did it take to make the robot?
There were 6 students working on the robot and 2 students worked on the science package with the laser beam.

How many times did they have to “try over” again?
The group went out three times over the summer to do testing and take measurements. Each time they learned what they had to improve for the next visit.

How long did it take to build the robot?
The rover robot came as a basic commercially-made kit, so they didn’t make that part from scratch. The hard part was customizing the rover to accomplish particular tasks. They were constantly working on hardware–making new parts for the rover–and they worked a lot on computer programming.

Did the students control the robot by mouse or did the robot move by itself?
Both! They controled the rover by a joystick control and also allowed the robot to use its on-board intelligence to navigate the cave.

What is the most interesting discovery made on these excursions?
Really it was the discovery of their own abilities. They discovered they could actually take the measurements and accomplish the intended task. It was kind of an experiment on themselves…how much they could learn and how much they could achieve.

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