In August this year you were able to witness a strange but at the same time fascinating scene which could have been straight out of a science fiction movie: Two astronauts in white space suits with big antennas on their backs were moving across a dark, rocky terrain high up on a mountain conducting scientific experiments. There was no other sign of life between those dark grey rocks and the cold ice surrounding them, making you feel like being on another planet. But when you turned your gaze away from the two space suits you could see that they were actually on an icy rock-glacier in the Austrian’ alps, almost three kilometers above sea level.
In the past, Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) has conducted various simulations in different regions of the earth and their experiments are set to pave the way for future human Mars missions. In order to establish a reliable communication system and transferring the huge amount of data produced during the experiments, the technicians of the OeWF have been relying on robust wireless network technology.
This year’s AMADEE-15 mission was the highest ever conducted human Mars simulation worldwide at about 2.800 meters above sea level. The experiments and the performed scientific research will not only help to plan and conduct future Mars explorations, but also help to better understand the ecosystem of glacier regions on earth.
People might wonder what Austria has in common with Mars – the answer is simple: The Kaunertal Glacier is the youngest glacier in Tyrol and its general typography and mineralogy are highly similar to glacier areas found on Mars. Thus the rock glaciers of the Kaunertal Alps serve as ideal analog test sites for future expeditions to possible ice regions on Mars. Crucial for future missions on the red planet will be the search for water.
“Houston, we have a solution!”
Communication has always been the key when it comes to exploration of space. Astronauts have to talk to each other and keep in touch with their base camp and with the mission support center on Earth. During experiments, live communication between astronauts and the base station as well as monitoring their vital data have the highest priority and are crucial for their success.
The central element of the OeWF simulation is the specially designed Aouda spacesuit which has been created to simulate wearing an actual spacesuit on Mars. All the vital and communication systems, sensors and additional electronics are hidden inside the backpack. In order to collect all the information and establish a stable, real-time communication, a wireless data transfer was necessary.
Hence the OeWF set up a wide-ranging wireless network for the astronauts to be connected during the simulations. As their experiments took place at various locations with highly differing climatic conditions, the network equipment had to be robust but at the same time flexible. Central elements of the network were ruggedized wireless outdoor access points mounted on tripods and spread across the glacier. Supplied by a mobile and rechargeable power supply, they could be re-arranged and easily configured.
The wireless network spanned a wide area of several hundred square meters with the help of point-to-(multi)point connections as part of a wireless distribution system (PDF). For the connections between the single access points omni-directional antennas were used to cover the surrounding areas with Wi-Fi and direct the signal towards the more distant access points. The astronauts logged into the network using their backpack-antennas. Wherever the signal strength was too weak, additional access points were deployed to guarantee a consistent and powerful Wi-Fi coverage.
When asking Dr. Gernot Grömer, President of the OeWF, about the importance of wireless communication he states that “a stable and reliable communication is the critical component of the mission and vital for its success. With highly professional and robust network equipment by LANCOM Systems, we were able to communicate and transfer scientific data in real-time” and he continues: “our scientists were able to test new mission support strategies, decision making workflows and analyzed real-time data for flight planning.” The scientists are currently evaluating all data and then are going to publish their findings. Some discoveries of this simulation might one day become relevant, when Wi-Fi will eventually be deployed on Mars!
PS: Being waterproof and non-sensitive to temperature fluctuation, our outdoor devices are of course not specially designed for the usage on Mars only. They bring broadband wireless connections to remote valleys or mountain cabins in the Alps where they have to face natural circumstances demanding highest stability and durability.