British antarctic survey plane drops research team off in snow field

Antarctica: a martian landscape

Antarctica: a martian landscape

In December 2016, three University of Glasgow researchers visited Alexander Island, the largest of the Antarctic islands. Our engineers were on a mission to evaluate the performance of our new robotic sample acquisition tool, which was designed to prove out new technologies for Mars Sample Return applications.

Antarctica has some of the most Mars-like conditions on Earth, and this ‘analogue testing’ campaign allowed our team to determine how well our ideas might work in practice, as well as helping to identify areas that require improvement. 

Robotic drilling

Our technology was designed to assemble a drillstring, take samples, cache those samples in storage silos, and then disassemble itself so that a future Mars rover would be able to move on to another site. However, on Mars, the low gravity means that we need to use low cutting forces, while dust ingress could prevent the sample containerisation mechanisms from working. We had a lot of operations to put to the test!

EU funded project team

Space Glasgow team

joined by

  • Tatu Tolonen of Space Systems Finland
  • Tom Sylvester, a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Field Assistant (BAS provides logistical support for UK science in the polar regions)
2 tents in antarctic snow field beneath blue sky

Coal Nunatak

Our researchers were flown to the drilling site of Coal Nunatak by two British Antarctic Survey aircraft. A ‘nunatak’ is a rocky outcrop not ideal for landing, but the aircraft was able to land on skis about 600m away where camp was set.

The camp was centred around two pyramid tents, and our BAS Field Assistant had the first job of checking for crevasses between camp and the nunatak itself. Once he was satisfied that it was safe to proceed, our team pulled three black boxes of equipment weighing up to 70kg, up the side of the outcrop with ropes and sledges.

On arrival at the top of the outcrop, we set up an operations tent and began testing our systems. We soon discovered that the rock was much harder than expected and that icy slurry is tricky to auger out of the hole, which slowed progress quite a bit.

However, these difficulties also taught us a lot about what conditions would be like on Mars and, following some adjustments, we were able to capture some good robotic sequences like the ones shown in the video below.

PhD student flies the British Antarctic Survey plane

Flying home

One of our team, Ryan Timoney, is currently a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Ryan had the opportunity to co-pilot the BAS aircraft home, flying along the King George VI Sound from the southern tip of Alexander Island to the BAS base at Rothera.