Envision Center collaborates with professor to bring Mars to Purdue

Picture yourself walking on Mars, crossing great red sand dunes and watching sunset over the horizon. Imagine wandering through the hallways of a base populated by pioneering Martian colonists, a living space that includes everything from farms to chemical labs.

This experience may seem like science fiction, but Mars is not as inaccessible as one might think. Soon, visitors may be able to reach it from Purdue. ITaP’s Envision Center, in partnership with Professor Sarag Saikia in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is working to make it possible for people to stand on the surface of the Red Planet and see how it might be to stay and work there, at least virtually.

When he graduated from Purdue’s doctoral program last year, Saikia faced a choice. He could go to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or he could continue to work on projects at Purdue and begin to teach. Now a visiting assistant professor, he chose to stay and create a multidisciplinary graduate design course dubbed “Human Journey to Mars.” In the course, the students are striving to create an extraterrestrial experience by the end of the semester. They’re designing a pioneering base to support about 50 humans on Mars, with presentations about their progress set for April 28.

NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars at a spot that may once have contained water. A NASA photo of the Curiosity rover exploring a location on Mars dubbed Point Lake, which may once have contained water.

The Envision Center has a history of bringing astronautics visions to life. In 2015, the center was recruited to create a “Hollywood-ready” video about the Aldrin Cycler, a system of spacecraft that could make human journeys to and settlement of Mars significantly easier. It was proposed by Buzz Aldrin, Apollo astronaut and the second man to walk on the moon, who personally thanked the center when he visited Purdue in January 2017. The video features engineering students explaining the concept while an animation shows what the craft would look like in action. Having served as the technical lead for the project during his time as a Purdue student, this gave Saikia an insight into what the center could do.

In the project with Saikia, the Envision Center will create a full virtual reality experience of the student-designed Martian base, says George Takahashi, the center’s technical lead. So far, the center has helped visualize previously gathered data of the surface of Mars. By Sept. 26, when Purdue’s next Dawn or Doom technology conference begins, the center hopes to be able to let visitors walk the surface of Mars and explore the engineering students’ handiwork.

The course is designed to cover the multidisciplinary challenges of such a mission. Design courses don’t often touch on these kind of complexities, as they frequently draw students from a small range of fields. In Human Journey to Mars, half the class is made up of engineers, from astronautics to civil. The other half is made up of a variety of science and technology students and one Health and Human Sciences master’s candidate, there to remind the designers that people must live in their final product. The work includes detailed construction strategy, civil engineering needs and operations planning for the base for 25–30 years, with the aim of establishing a sustainable human presence on Mars.

Once a finalized design is done, students will team up with the Envision Center, the Purdue VR club and undergraduate computer graphics classes to transfer it from paper to virtual reality. Already, the VR club has been working on transforming satellite photographs of Mars into usable images, so not only will the simulation place users in the structures the designers create, but on the surface of Mars itself.

The simulation is being programmed to work with the HTC VIVE virtual reality headset and the Virtuix Omni, a 360-degree VR treadmill that will allow users to walk through the environment naturally. The Envision Center was among the first to receive those technologies and had access to them before their commercial release.

Wearing the headset, users will see every piece of the simulation as if it was happening right in front of them. This experience begins at launch, continues through landing and then brings the user to the habitat itself. The Omni allows movement through the habitat without restriction, furthering realism while also reducing the risk of motion sickness.

The simulation will be released in an open source form, allowing anyone with their own VR devices to experience a virtual journey to Mars. A video will also be released to showcase the design and experience. Saikia and his students say they hope to inspire people by visualizing the Mars colony, but also to have others improve the design concept.

Writer: Charlotte Herbert, Information Technology at Purdue, cherbert@purdue.edu.

Last updated: April 26, 2017

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