Have you ever opened your eyes to an almost untouched world? A place where you can feel every slightest noise, every of your breath, a place where every gesture is meaningful?
I’ve already taken you on an exoplanet, around Jupiter, Uranus. Today, a bit of astronomy yet: we are going to start a journey on the planet Mars.
Wonder is everywhere, as long as we remind ourselves we are all part of it.
If you like to travel, you will probably enjoy our adventure today. The red planet amazes us. Walking on Mars would be something incredible. Thanks to virtual reality (VR), we can now already visit the place safely as a human being and as a living being.
A few virtual travel projects are in progress or already ready to be used. I was invited by the team of VR2Planets, a startup, to visit their laboratory and ask them some questions. I would like to thank them, in the first instance François Civet, CEO of VR2Planets, whom I met during this interview. You will see him, in a virtual spacesuit, in my video below. It was a fun and interesting experience.
I will also offer you an update on current and future large-scale scientific projects regarding the planet Mars.
Are you ready to go? Then let’s go on this journey!
A tour of Mars planet
Duration : Scientific projects, a few months minimum / Virtual trip, about 1 hour
Location : Mars, Solar System
Budget : non communicated
Distance travelled : 300 000 000 kilometers
I’ve been exploring the planet Mars in virtual reality (VR) using an HTC Vive headset! I followed the Curiosity rover, thanks to VR2Planets for this trip.
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You’ve been waiting for this moment since you were a child.
With the headset on, your pulse rate accelerates, you hold your breath.
You have finally arrived at your destination! You’ll be able to set foot on the red planet.
You are standing on the walkway, right in front of the door. This door will open in a few moments, as soon as you give the green light by pressing the button.
. Firsts Steps
You’re watching your gloved hands. You’re enjoying this moment. Of course, you can’t go out without a spacesuit. But you are delighted to finally walk for the first time on a planet that is not your native Earth.
The door opens. You can now look at the landscape of Mars, right in front of you.
NASA was there, NASA is still there.
The idea of bringing a rock back to show it to your friends is very appealing to you. A few steps away, you notice a small rover robot usually working to extract samples from the ground. It’s Curiosity! She raises one of his arms. Here, she looks like she’s shooting selfies!
. At the Mars dunes like a memory of the Earth’s beaches
You look around you. The panorama is strangely beautiful. You feel both a deep excitement and dizziness.
Mountains, valleys, dunes, rocks and sand surrounds you. Mountains, valleys, dunes surround you. You want to grab rocks or let sand slide from your gloved hand.
But the horizon is calling you.
. Hold your breath and admire the horizon
You slowly start walking. Each step prints your mark on the planet’s dust. Even if you don’t see or even look at it. You look straight ahead.
You want to climb this small hill to get an overview of the Martian landscape.
Well, that was further than you thought. Come on, a few more steps!
You are finally here. This is better than any pictures of Mars you’ve ever seen. This is the true panorama of the planet Mars.
Curiosity, NASA rover robot
NASA’s latest rover landed on Mars on 2012, in Gale Crater. Curiosity is both a photographer rover robot and a NASA laboratory.
Her mission is to find, extract and analyze samples, and acquire microscopic images of rocks and soil. She – because Americans have chosen to give female nicknames to their rovers – can travel 12 miles and climb 45-degree slopes.
Nasa sent Curiosity to help study geology and climate of Mars. Her purpose is thus to help understand the role of water and whether life could ever have been supported on the red planet. Curiosity’s original mission had to last two years. It has been extended indefinitely. Map
VR2Planets, Experts in image processing & immersive visualization
1. The ultra-realistic projects of a French startup to take you and immerse you in extraterrestrial soils.
In May 2018, the American Space Agency (NASA) called on the VR2Planets startup to provide the launch show for the InSight shuttle, whose landing is scheduled for November 2018.
Born from projects within the research work of the Planetology and Geodynamics Laboratory of the University of Nantes, France, the start-up uses open access high-definition images of rovers, such as Curiosity, and space exploration program probes, such as MRO, with its HiRISE camera, to reconstruct immersive 3D ultra-realistic videos and the design of virtual reality environments.
As an expert in geoscience data, the start-up team creates experiences for the general public, which can notably be used for learning. Their applications are also available for more specific, professional, scientific and technological uses, among others.
I had the privilege of a tour of the offices with the explanations of François Civet, the CEO of VR2Planets, on the VR2Planets projects and in specific VR2Mars.
2. VR2Planets immersive projects
- Mars (VR2Mars)
- Titan (VR2Titan)
- Comet Churry with the Rosetta mission (VR2Churry)
- Trace Gas Orbiter (VR2Tgo), with UK Space Agency and Open University, to follow ExoMars, ESA space European mission.
The startup’s next project is to map the Moon in 3D.
VR2Planets website: vr2planets.com
The VR2Planets applications will prepare astronauts for their future lunar or martian exploration mission.
François Civet, VR2Planets CEO
We’ll also carry you in high definition to several body’s solar system.
8 present and future projects for the planet Mars
InSight is the twelfth mission of the NASA Discovery Science Program.
The spacecraft was launched on May 5, 2018 and was scheduled to land on Mars on November 26, 2018. It has been therefore a six-month journey, 300 million kilometres from Earth, not a small travel. InSight mission is an exploration of the internal structure of Mars using seismic, geodetic and heat transport studies.
A probe carried the very precise SEIS seismometer: it is designed to detect Curiosity toe ground movements on an atomic scale! Thanks to SEIS, as the French space agency says in its press releases, we will now be able to “listen to the heart of Mars”!
The landing scheduled for November 26, 2018 was an event for the astronomical and scientific communities, and the general public was invited to attend. Moreover, NASA organized its communication in large format, as we are used to.
The deployment of the protective shield was successfully completed on February 4, 2019. SEIS seismic sensors can now be switched on day and night and can withstand extreme temperatures. SEIS will finally be able to start its scientific activity.
Partnership: InSight is a collaboration between NASA (NASA JPL) and many European partners and laboratories, including : French Centre for Space Studies (CNES), German Space Centre (DLR), Institute of Globe Physics of Paris (IGPG), Dynamic Meteorology Laboratory (LMD) of Paris, Oxford University, London Imperial College, Higher Institute of Aeronautics and Space (ISAE) of Toulouse, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) of Göttingen, Institute of Particle Physics and Astrophysics Zurich (ETH Zürich).
ExoMars mission is focused on exobiology research: has there been or is there life on Mars, and if so, under what conditions?
The first part of the mission was in 2016.
In 2020, ExoMars will land on Mars a Russian platform, carrying a European vehicle whose mission will be to dig and analyze samples up 2 meters deep. At this depth, organic compounds should be protected from radiation and oxidants which damage them.
Partnership: ExoMars is an international partnership between European Space Agency (ESA), French Space Agency (CNES), French Scientific Research Center (CNRS), American Space Agency (NASA), Russian Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS).
A robot rover will complete Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit robot-rovers work, always looking for data to find out if there was life on Mars and under what conditions.
NASA is currently seeking partner in contest to name next Mars rover, as they did since the very first Mars rover in 1997. Corporations, nonprofits and educational organisations interested in sponsoring the contest can send proposals to NASA.
“Thousands of kids participate, and their enthusiasm for the contest and Mars is infectious.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington
Project Leader : NASA JPL.
SpaceX is planning its first mission to Mars in 2022, to confirm the Red Planet’s water resources and the initial area for a life infrastructure with power and mining.
The second mission, with cargo and crew, is targeted for 2024. The BFR – a rocket, the Big Falcon Rocket, whose first launch is scheduled for 2020 – is expected to land the crew and their cargo on the chosen site on Mars. This new type of rocket will in the most likely provide significant savings in money and resources, it will reduce the ecological impact of space transport.
Project Leader : SpaceX.
NASA has launched a competition to design and create autonomous and technology advanced habitat projects for astronauts on Mars, with 3D printing with Mars materials. It follows and ends the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge.
« The goal of the public challenge is to create sustainable shelters suitable for the Moon, Mars or beyond using resources available on site. » NASA
Image legend: Team SEArch+ / Apis Cor of New York won first place in Phase 3, Level 2 of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge. For this level, they printed a foundation and subjected it to various tests, including a shot put to simulate a collision with a meteor. Image Credits: SEArch+/Apis Cor
But before colonizing Mars, SpaceX will need several BFR to get a spaceship into low-Earth orbit and refuel it. The plan is to be ready for the colonization of Mars in the early 2030s.
This is a long-term project, with many experts working on it.
Elon Musk’s projects are usually titled like those of a utopian billionaire or dreamer. Whatever one may think, humanity is used to making unthinkable dreams come true, even if realities sometimes go beyond the dream, in bad as well as in good ways.
Anticipation is not far away, but anticipation leads people to their goals, and what may seem like science fiction is then renamed prospective.
Project Leader : SpaceX.
Marsbee is a miniature flying robot, a kind of bumblebee with cicada wings. This flying robot, whose aerodynamics are inspired by insects, will be used in swarms to accelerate research on Mars, particularly by accessing hard-to-reach areas. This is a good example of technology from the biomimetic sciences.
Partnership: NASA experts, American and Japanese scientists combined their expertise.
Mars One want to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars, with a no-return ticket to the Red Planet.
Crew training is scheduled to begin in 2018. The first ComSat mission is scheduled for 2024. The first departure from Earth of a manned space mission is planned for 2031, with a landing on Mars in 2032. Their ambassadors and some brands have chosen to showcase Mars One.
Mars One has received wide media coverage and is counting on its media coverage to finance part of the expenses, but the project does not convince everyone.
It is not my intention here to develop the problems of such a journey and its crew – it would take a long article to mention many scientific, technical, psychological and human elements -.
Whether or not the project is successful, it has the virtue of being openly international, collective, and a great inspiring power.
Project manager: Two billionaires initiated the global project and opened it as a collective project. It is managed by two entities: a non-profit foundation, Mars One Foundation, and a public commercial company, Mars One Ventures.
Torres del Paine, Chili, photography by Peter Winckler.
The Atacama, in Chile, is one of the regions of the Earth that scientists believe is closest to Martian conditions.
Panoramas of Mars vs Earth
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Why do we love the panoramas of Mars so much? Because it’s on another planet and humans need to watch what they can’t touch by themselves? Do they remind us some of our own planet‘s landscapes, the Earth?
Mars planet is different from what we are used to. But Mars is also a familiar place. We can see a glimpse of Mars in the Earth’s panoramas.
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Curiosity is natural for human beings. It drives us to small and large explorations.
All these projects, like most large-scale projects, involve many experts and researchers, often at an international level. Major projects legitimize themselves through their scientific and human breakthrough, but also because they enhance our research and understanding of our humanity, our environment, our life, our universe.
Exploring what surrounds us allows us to better understand not only how life is born and evolves, but also who we are.
I will not debate how smart and sustainable, or not, we currently care about our planet. Our Earth‘s state is speaking for itself.
However, one question remains: what development do we want for our own home and for our own species?
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NASA, NASA JPL, European Space Agency (ESA), French Centre for Space Studies (CNES), SpaceX, Caltech University, University of Nantes, Planetology and Geodynamics Laboratory of Nantes (LPG), Institute of Globe Physics of Paris (IPGP), Research Institute of Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP) of Toulouse, French Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Office of the Commissioner for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies (CEA), French Instrument Operations Centre for Mars (FIMOC Institute of Space Astrophysics (IAS), Russian Space Center (ROSCOSMOS), Mars One, Bradley University, NASA Centennial Challenges, VR2Planets, HTC Corporation, UK Space Agency, UK Open University, Dynamic Meteorology Laboratory (LMD) of Paris, GeoAzur Laboratory in Nice, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in Washington, German Space Centre (DLR), Oxford University, London Imperial College, Higher Institute of Aeronautics and Space (ISAE) in Toulouse, Max-Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Göttingen, Institute of Particle Physics and Astrophysics in Zurich (ETH Zürich).
Ressources to go further
- Weird Life Found in Earth’s Driest Soil, article by Michael Greshko, National Geographic.
- Atacama’s lessons about life on Mars, article by Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent.
- Flowers bloom in the Atacama desert, in images, Article The Guardian.
- And if you are a fan of the images of the ground of Mars and the Moon, in particular, go for a regular visit on the site and the publications of HiRISE, there are often treasures !