UAlberta physics student lands on Mars in simulated space mission

Public can participate in simulated Mars mission by communicating with crew member Ross Lockwood, a Physics grad student at the University of Alberta.

Suzette Chan - 16 April 2014

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta has a man on Mars - as part of a simulated mission at HI-SEAS, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation.

Ross Lockwood, a PhD student in the field of condensed matter physics, is one of six people chosen from over 700 applicants to participate in the earth-bound mission. Lockwood has been active in physics outreach. He spent four years as the teaching assistant at the Department of Physics Observatory in the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies and at the University of Alberta's ISSET Space Academy.

The University of Hawaii's HI-SEAS project, supported with funding from NASA, will study the psychological effects of a long-duration space mission on a small crew.

However, the experiment imagines that a Mars crew will be in communication with the Earth. To simulate that aspect, "Earthlings" outside of the mission are encouraged to communicate with Lockwood and the crew through a specially configured Earth-to-Mars delay server.

In an exchange between the HI-SEAS "Mars" base and the Department of Physics, Lockwood recently answered some questions about the mission.

Q and A with Ross Lockwood

Is a Mars mission, like the one you're simulating, possible with the technology we have today?

We are simulating a high-fidelity mission to Mars set from 2025 to 2030. There are of course some shortcomings, since we are using 2014 technologies, but most of the appliances we are using today aren't expected to change much in the next decade. Sleeping quarters, bathrooms, kitchen appliances, and tools are state of the art today, and would likely resemble those send on a future mission. Computers are expected to change significantly, so it's hard to predict what future astronauts may use.

Would there realistically be two-way communication between Earth and humans who travel to Mars?

Yes! In fact, our communications consist of an Internet connection that goes through a specially configured delay server that simulates a 20-minute speed of light delay between Earth and Mars at their greatest distance. This is a large component of the psychological research being done, and is held fixed as a control in that study. Rates predicted for a mission to Mars are approximately 50 Mbps downlink and 25 Mbps uplink, so internet speeds are fantastic, but latency is extreme.

What's your role in the mission?

We didn't initially have roles carved out for us, but I've fallen into a Crew Technologist and Systems Engineering role. Setting up communications involved some intense network configurations on all the crew computers, tablets and smartphones (we only use the habitat WIFI), and there were lots of bugs to iron out in the local network. All of our life support systems are on the local area network too, so I can monitor that state of our power and water consumption, see the charging rate of our battery banks from our solar array, and even change the temperature inside the habitat from my smartphone.

What's the importance of the interactive part of the simulation?

A crew on Mars would depend on interactivity with Earth for their psychological health. Among six crew members in tight quarters, you can easily expend healthy social interactions, so having an input from people on Earth would be beneficial. At least that's my personal theory. On the other hand, there is a lot of interest on Earth about living on Mars, and sharing my daily activities here helps boost interest in space science and ultimately fund successful missions.

How can people interact with you?

The best way to interact with me is through my delayed e-mail address, I have also set up e-mail to Facebook and e-mail to Twitter services that allow me to post on social media back on Earth, and most (but not all) of my notifications are send back through the delayed e-mail. I will be chronicling my experience on my personal blog,, and anyone is free to leave a comment there.