Monday | September 25, 2017
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HPA students helping with mock Mars mission

In an exciting role reversal, researchers working on a NASA-funded mission are getting pointers from top Hawaii Preparatory Academy science students as part of a new partnership.

Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, is a mission designed to explore new forms of food and culinary strategies for long-term planetary exploration. The participating researchers are tasked with considering packaging waste, energy efficiency, scheduling, menu fatigue and social cohesion in the crew. They are also examining the trade-offs between pre-prepared meals and meals that require some preparation, said 16-year-old junior Hannah Twigg-Smith.

The HI-SEAS mission is currently taking place in a small dome-shaped, closed-loop habitat in an abandoned quarry on a cinder cone ridge on the northern slope of Mauna Loa. In this barren, red landscape, meant to resemble a remote Martian outpost, six researchers are spending 120 days in isolation, completing their studies and mastering daily tasks essential to sustain human life in deep space. They also have simulated spacesuits to make movement clumsy and going outside a chore. This is the first in a planned three-year series to study the challenges associated with missions to the Red Planet, said Bill Wiecking, director of HPA’s Energy Lab and the advance self-directed science research of students.

Prior to starting their mission last month, the HI-SEAS team followed the recommendation of Blue Planet Foundation founder Henk Rogers and visited HPA’s Energy Lab, a fully sustainable science building with net zero water and net zero energy. Here, students study, research, design and developed new and existing renewable energy technologies. The hundreds of sensors inside measure and control everything from energy and water use to the amount of carbon dioxide in each room. Every sensor provides real-time readings online to allow for monitoring of energy use, Wiecking said.

The cutting-edge Energy Lab is the first kindergarten through 12th grade school facility to meet the Living Building Challenge, a criteria that exceeds LEED platinum certification. It’s linked to other facilities around the world that have similar programs, allowing students to exchange resources and collaborate. Over the past three years, the Energy Lab has been engaged in promoting global sustainability by example, and the lessons learned were shared with the researchers. The HI-SEAS team was so impressed that HPA was asked to help with the mission, Wiecking said.

Ten students are now helping with the experiment during their independent study period, after school, on the weekends and also this summer. They’re in charge of instrumentation, assisting with the regular monitoring of the team’s energy and water usage, as well as the levels of carbon dioxide inside the habitat. From the three weeks of data already collected, they have found patterns, such as spikes when appliances are turned on, and suggested changes to the team’s daily routines, aimed at helping lower energy consumption, said 17-year-old junior Luigi Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy.

“Being on Mars will be a delicate situation for space explorers, especially because of the limited resources. This mission is important because the researchers are learning the best way to live in a tricky environment,” he said. “They will be making self-discoveries about needs and wants, and will be wiser about their decisions relating to conserving energy. Though it’s kind of funny to be giving special suggestions to respected experts who are specialized in different fields, it also feels completely natural for HPA students to be involved in this experiment because of our passion for science and the knowledge we have gained through our work with the Energy Lab. It’s also my greatest pleasure to help. I’m confident that together we will be able make positive changes that will lead to more sustainable, aware, balanced lives, even for astronauts.”

The biggest challenge so far, according to Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy, could be keeping an adequate water supply. He said the team has about 500 gallons of water in a tank, which has required more refilling than originally anticipated. This means the HI-SEAS team will have to be even more creative when preparing, cooking and cleaning up after meals, he added.

All research data and the responses are sent via wireless links to support staff at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Cornell University. To heighten the communication simulation between “planets,” the communications link has a built-in delay just like real communications would take between Mars and Earth. Even though communications travel at light speed, a one-way message can take 20 minutes or more, Wiecking said.

The students are also working on a virtual reality tour of the HI-SEAS habitat, similar to the ones they did for the Energy Lab and W.M. Keck Observatory. Eventually, the tour will have pop-ups with information about the mission, features that allow the user to click on a particular sensor and get a current reading, as well as possibly include short videos showing components of the experiment, such as cooking.

Bo Bleckel, a 17-year-old junior, said the virtual reality tour is a great tool that makes places accessible for those who wouldn’t normally have the ability to go to those locations. It’s also a great way to share information and make connections with others who are equally passionate about this mission, he added.

Twigg-Smith has corresponded with some of the researchers as they have been logging meals, recipes and reactions, as well as weighing and photographing food. She has been inspired by their attempts to find new ways to feed space explorers and overcome food boredom. Prior to the mission, she said the researchers explained to the HPA students that astronauts tend to eat less and less of their ready-to-eat meals, usually freeze dried, throughout their mission. The fewer calories can affect not only their productivity, but also their health, she added.

The absence of fresh food and working in a small space has not yet stymied their creativity, Twigg-Smith said. She also found it interesting that the researchers often cook in pairs for the social aspects and there’s a robotic dinosaur being kept as a pet.

“When the researchers first told us about their mission, my first thoughts were, ‘That’s so cool. I want to go to Mars,’” Twigg-Smith said. “Humans could be sent to Mars as soon as 2030. It’s awesome to able to work with NASA, help these researchers gather their data and contribute to their success.”

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