Can You Help NASA Build A Mars Sim In VR?

No matter your project or field of endeavor, simulation is a useful tool for finding out what you don’t know. In many cases, problems or issues aren’t obvious until you try and do something. Where doing that thing is expensive or difficult, a simulation can be a low-stakes way to find out some problems without huge costs or undue risks.

Going to Mars is about as difficult and expensive as it gets. Thus, it’s unsurprising that NASA relies on simulations in planning its missions to the Red Planet. Now, the space agency is working to create a Mars sim in VR for training and assessment purposes. The best part is that you can help!

Why Simulate Mars?

Sunset on Mars, as captured by NASA’s Spirit rover in 2005. Even simple things like night and day are different on Mars compared to Earth, and could present complications to NASA’s operations. Simulation will help find that out ahead of time. Credit: NASA, public domain

When it comes to things like rocket performance and calculating satellite trajectories, NASA is pretty well sorted when it comes to simulations. It’s got crack teams of engineers and scientists that have spent decades improving these tools for the agency.

However, when it comes to putting astronauts on the surface of Mars, NASA doesn’t really have a whole lot to go on. In future, astronauts could land on the planet, and be charged with a variety of tasks in the Martian environment. These could be as diverse as exploring on foot or on motorized conveyances, setting up permanent living facilities, or building and troubleshooting hardware to generate resources locally on the surface of Mars.

Humans have never undertaken any of these tasks before, and so it’s difficult to know what challenges could be presented when future astronauts arrive on Mars. Ideally, we’d want a pretty good idea of what things will be like before astronauts are left to their own devices on a planet that’s tens of millions of kilometers away. Getting to Mars and finding out your tools are too hard to use, or your living quarters are impractical, would be incredibly frustrating when it’s too late to do anything about it.

It’s Just Like Being There

Thus, a simulation is in order! The agency has done some of the ground work itself already, whipping up a Mars environment in Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 5. Known as the Mars XR Operations Support System, the virtual environment simulates the conditions on the surface of Mars as they would be experienced by astronauts. The simulation is intended to be used with VR gear, to allow astronauts or others to feel and act as if they really are on the Red Planet.

Thus far, there’s a simulated Martian day/night cycle with the appropriate sky conditions, along with the proper value for Martian gravity. There are working rovers, too, and changing weather conditions based on our best knowledge of Martian meteorology. The simulator includes a massive 400 km² (154 mile²) of terrain to traverse based on NASA’s own research.

One of the challenge categories is “Set Up Camp.” The intention is to create a simulation of setting up a Mars camp to see what challenges this might present to astronauts. Credit: NASA, public domain

With all that done, NASA came to a new problem. The agency’s Mars simulation is actually too accurate. Just like the planet itself, there isn’t actually anything to do. This is where the public comes in. NASA has created the MarsXR Challenge, charging the public with the job of populating the Mars simulator with useful content. Naturally, the simulator needs to be filled with realistic assets and scenarios in order to be an effective training and investigative aid for NASA and its astronauts.

Seb Loze, Unreal Engine business director for simulations at Epic Games, notes the opportunity this affords those that get involved. Creators can use Unreal Engine to build realistic simulation scenarios to help prepare NASA for future missions, whether that’s to the moon or to Mars,” said Loze, adding “Whether you’re a game designer, architect, hobbyist or rocket scientist, anyone can build with UE5, and we can’t wait to see the immersive simulations the community comes up with.”

Astronauts famously used the Lunar Roving Vehicle to get around the Moon on later Apollo missions. We’re sure few would pass up the chance to drive something similar on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA, public domain

The competition is being hosted on crowdsourcing platform HeroX, which helps clients share projects with the broader public to find useful and unique solutions. As per the challenge website, there are five separate categories for competitors to get involved with. Four are task-oriented categories, including Set Up Camp, Scientific Research, Maintenance, and Exploration. The final category, Blow Our Minds, is an invitation for the creative and technically-adept to make something that simply impresses the judges beyond all expectation.

The challenge comes with a prize purse of $70,000, which will be shared across 20 individual prizes. Each category has four prizes, with the overall winner in each scoring $6,000 for their work. There’s no need to limit yourself or your team, though. NASA welcomes multiple entries in multiple categories, and entrants are eligible for multiple prizes too.

You might have a great idea for a Martian medical simulation, or perhaps an exciting mission where astronauts drive out far into the red desert on something approximating the Lunar Roving Vehicle. Maybe you’d like to simulate a recovery operation to bring back the brave Spirit rover, which served with distinction and deserves to come home.

Whatever your ideas are, the submission deadline is July 27, 2022. Whip up an idea, put together your crew, and get to it!

40 thoughts on “Can You Help NASA Build A Mars Sim In VR?

  1. How’s this supposed to work? It’s very much unlikely most people will know enough about physics on Mars to be able to come up with realistic simulations, so it’ll really just amount to being a game, then. I can come up with multiple different ideas myself, but I know for a fact that I do not have a good enough grasp on physics even in general, let alone on Mars.

      1. Not. It took place in a fictional research station on one of Mars’ moons, Phobos (and possibly also Deimos; don’t know the full story of every game in the series).

    1. Physics on Mars need not be particularity hard – pretty sure all the common game engines just let you set the gravity, the air density being lower may matter and need simulation but won’t be all that relevant to many simulations – and its not like most games simulate it now in our much thicker atmosphere when it actually has a much larger drag effect, as its still such a small effect its not all that noticeable if its there or not…

      If you really want properly realistic simulations you would have to send the VR rig up on the vomit comet and have it simulate that low gravity rather than none, so it actually feels right – any simulation done under 1G won’t really be representative, but can still be a great training tool. Perfection in a simulation is not really possible – even in something as well defined as an F1 car with their big budget simulators it isn’t perfect (even more so if they can’t actually figure out why the wind tunnel, flow calcs etc don’t agree with the real world experience), but that doesn’t mean its not damn good and a decent head start to learning track layout changes etc.

    1. On a slightly more sensible, but related note: I wonder how hard it would be to do a MCMC simulation of Dr. Watney’s chances of survival, given the events of the film?

  2. well … yes but … no !
    I don’t do contests for work,
    I need clear contract and frame so the work is not lost in bureaucratic evaluation that discard it for arbitrary unknown term
    I need correct pay/budget and not “small reward divided among participants” (I mean 70k/20=3.5k, so not even 2 weeks of paid work for one person … if elected!)
    I need advance timeframe and deadlines with justification so I can plan the work correctly and justify the energy
    and no, the supposed “publicity” does not fill the fridge or pay the rent

    looks like this is amateur planning and idea scrapping (without pay) that is not bearable for serious contributions, so not so cool imho
    (and yes I have actually already worked on a Mars scenery based on scientific data for VR in the past … in EU)

    1. That’s fine! This project is not for you then. But I’m sure there are lots of people who would enjoy working in an open-ended project for the fun of it and the chance of helping NASA do cool stuff related to interplanetary travel.

      My impression of HaD comments recently is that the “Could have been done with a 555 timer” comment has been replaced with “This project does not fit my specific needs, and therefore is useless” comments…

  3. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any means but this sounds like much more than it is. since as far as i understand there is no assets for all the equipment and habitats it means the teams have to develop not only the scenario but all the tools and resources. sounds to me like NASA is running out of ideas and wants to crowdsource the engineering part of the mars missions. not really sure about the “training” part.

      1. I’m sorry but this still sounds like a ripoff to me. you have to do the asset development and the engineering behind it only to maybe get a reward? if you do this for fun or because your bored that’s all right i guess but your basically giving them free IP they can then freely use without giving you anything.

  4. Why in all the simulations on the moon and mars are the structures over ground. Surely these structures, at least on mars anyhow, should be covered with 5 meters (~16.4′) of regolith to mimic the reduction in cosmic radiation provided by earths atmosphere. My thinking is that the regolith interacting with HZE ions will be a constant source of X-rays and gamma rays and you need at least some shielding from that if you need to live there for six plus months for the next available shortest Mars-Earth transfer trajectory.

    The first job I see on mars is some delicate shovel work!

    1. I’d go for some geoscanning or seismology type stuff to local any natural caverns or chasms even that can be roofed.

      Though worrying about the radiation while you’re there on Mars is a bit of a minor problem when it’s the year trip in and year trip out radiation that might kill you.

      Might wanna deal with the cold in a polar winter instead. At least water would be easier to find there.

      1. > it’s the year trip in and year trip out radiation that might kill you
        In transit I always assumed that the people would sleep surrounded on most sides by large quantities various fluids (water, fuel and “other”) for shielding. And the craft itself would be composed of mostly low Z material so the generation of secondary high-energy (ionising) photon radiation from HZE ions interactions would be less. With most of the shielding being between the engines (typically composed of high Z elements) and the passengers.

        > Might wanna deal with the cold in a polar winter instead
        To isolate the cold of mars from the warm human bodies inside the structures just use insulation, Aerogel instantly comes to mind due to its extremely low thermal conductivity. Although it is fragile so maybe use thicker layers of something much cheaper like expanded Polystyrene (EPS) or Polyurethane foam just like we do on earth. Or maybe vacuum (basically living inside a thermos flask turned on it’s side made from metal instead of glass, you would need structural insulation between the inner and outer cans – probably some kind of ceramic with the same expansion coefficient as the metal use or else the alloy used with the same expansion coefficient as the best ceramic available for the purpose). Or maybe just follow the K.I.S.S. principle a large heavy duty multi layer inflatable structures with one, or more for safety, of their internal layers filled with EPS. Keeping hot things hot and cold things cold is not a complex engineering problem, at least not here on Earth. The technology exists and is used in the Arctic where temperatures can reach -40 or even −50°C(−58 °F) during the winter, which is not very far away from the average temperatures on Mars. Ok, at the poles during winter it is much worse, but would we really send people there on the maiden voyage to Mars.

    1. Dang, they’d probably reply quicker to..

      Deer NASSA,

      I are a rockit serjun, I firred rockits on the forth of July with my farter. I can hepl you get too other planits. My oldist brother says he found a leef that do that. I tryed liting a leef on fir and it didnt go like the rockits. I make the rockits go good thow. Give me a job now becase i want to by a new eggsbox next month, thanks,

      Timmy age 7 1/4

  5. You do realized how small NASA’s budget is compared to other parts of the government? How about we cut the paychecks for members of congress or maybe reduce the budget for the military (which is probably the biggest part of the government’s budget), or close the loopholes in the tax law which allow the oligarchs to get away with paying nothing in taxes? There are plenty of ways to find the funding to help out people here on Earth without reducing our advancement of science and knowledge of our universe.

    1. In defense of our military, it is the only organization within the US Government that actually is and does what it is supposed to. They are paid to be the most formidable and capable combat force on earth and that is in fact what they are. Maybe NASA should focus on getting their act together on the SLS which is incredibly over budget and behind schedule. NASA has lost its focus and is not the same organization that accomplished the Apollo missions. They have largely become a college research project that seems to always be thinking and planning but never getting to the engineering part.

      1. If NASA wants to know what it is like to live and work on Mars they only need to wait a little bit and then ask SpaceX which anyone who follows the space industry knows is going to beat NASA to putting humans on Mars by a large margin.

      2. Again, what money does NASA vs. the military have to work with? Seems to me this might be a touch important here. Their funding in the 60s reached over 4% of federal budget, while today it’s about 0.5%. Their budget was 50% greater then, adjusting for inflation. Of course they’re not the same organization that put people on the Moon.

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