Calgary robotics expert Hawaii-bound to join Mars simulation mission

Graduate student Simon Engler with Mars rover prototype Zoë. (Photo courtesy Simon Engler)Simon Engler, a robotics graduate researcher at the University of Calgary, was chosen from a pool of over 700 candidates to take part in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue & Simulation (HI-SEAS), a 120-day 'Mars analogue' mission and food study located on the Big Island of Hawaii in 2013.

The mission will involve living in a small habitat on a remote part of the Big Island that closely resembles Mars. The participants will try different foods (instant and shelf-stable) that might be included in manned Mars missions, test the time, power and water consumption in food preparation, and measure food and nutrient intake over the isolation period. They will be under strict food and water consumption restrictions the entire time.

"Only a small amount of people who applied realized what they're getting themselves into," said Engler. "It's very isolated, at close quarters and there'll be bad food...a two-minute shower once a week. It's going to be awesome."

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Engler is no stranger to adverse conditions. After obtaining his degree in Astrophysics and Mathematics and working as a scientific programmer with the University of Amsterdam, he joined the Canadian Armed Forces, serving with the 1 Combat Engineer Regiment for 5 years. This included a 10-month combat tour in Afghanistan in 2009, where he helped test and build a robotic bomb-detector for finding Taliban 'Improvised Explosive Devices' (IEDs). He figures that this is what sealed the deal for him to participate in HI-SEAS.

"I think that left little doubt I'd be able to handle the living conditions," he said.

Each participant in the study will bring along their own pet project. Engler's is a robotic rover known as Zoë, which he has been working on at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, PA.

"I always had a passion for space science and I kind of fell into the world of robotics when I was serving in the Canadian Armed Forces and I constructed my first robot, 'Prairie Dog,' in 2009," Engler said earlier this year, according to the University of Calgary's UToday site. "My contribution to the Zoë project will be field testing dynamic navigation algorithms and programming a visual interface for an iPad tablet."

"I consider the space sciences to be among the most important research work today. I believe the ultimate survival of our species depends on expanding our knowledge of other planets first," he said. "This work contributes to that goal and I feel I am doing something that will really make a difference."

When asked if he would volunteer for a manned mission to Mars, he replied "Absolutely, no problem."

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The analog mission will begin in January with a two-week trial in Utah before the participants relocate to the Hawaii habitat.