Mars: The Second Mission

After the discovery of liquid water below the surface, the plans for mission 2 have begun. The first mission also found the Zeus rover and retreived the information from the data recorder. There are 20 or so sub surface echoes that need to be explored some distance away from the landing site. We will need to send a 2 man rover to explore these deposits. We will need to set up a communications repeater tower on the hill to the west of the base to allow the command center to stay in touch with the rover crews. The most important function for mission 2 is to set up a greenhouse and grow food.

Now that we have access to liquid water we can stay planetside for an extended period of time. It is our hope that the rover crews find materials we can use to sustain the colony. We need to find material for fertalizer such as Phosphates, nitrates and potassium based chemicals. Everything we have or produce needs to be recycled. Unused plant material and waste products can be composted and used to treat the soil. The chemistry of the soils we find there will have to be modified to promote plant growth. The challenges we face to alter what we find to provide what we need will be difficult but I think we are up to the task.

Mission 2 will have a water scrubber to clean some of the contaminates that may be present. This scrubber will provide clean drinking water for the crew to drink and to water the plants in the greenhouse. The water scrubber will also be used to extract oxygen from the water for the crew and help balance the oxygen levels in the farm unit.

We learned from mission 1 that there are frequent storms on the surface. The solar panels only provide power during the calm. The wind speed tests we did in mission 1 tell us we can suplement the power requirements using wind turbine generators. These generators should meet or exceed the power requirements of the farm. The biggest issue will be heat for the plants. We can’t afford to let them freeze and die. Our earth bound testing provided us with hearty plants that can grow in cold temperatures and will require less power to maintain. The crew of mission 2 will have to monitor the farm constantly until we find the magic combination that will provide a sustainable source of food.

We will set up an algae growth system in this second mission. Algae will provide food, some medicines and a small oxygen supplement. Earth researchers have discovered that algae is not really a food but we can use it for food for fish that we may bring, grow and eat . There is alot of interesting research on algae and the crew of mission 2 will be busy.

The rover we send for mission 2 has been named Hercules. It is a small truck rover that will carry two passengers and cargo. It will be powered by a methane / oxygen turbine to charge the batteries with a Photo Voltaic panel for chargeing the batteries while out at the work sites. Hercules is equipped with emergency oxygen and can sustain the occupants during storms. We will need to take enough spare parts to keep it going until mission 3. The plans are set, the mission is a go.

State of the Colony

You don’t realize how many things can be interconnected in a simulator until you have to write the code for it. In order to create a level of realism we have to consider what I call effecters on everything in the simulation. Take the character for instance; each one has health and stamina. The overall health of a player is affected by food, water, temperature and oxygen levels. Depending on the activity, the stamina level will go up and down. A person exerting energy to climb a hill or carry a heavy object will lose stamina and over time will cause a decrease in overall health. You get too cold or are depleted of oxygen and your health will go down. Depending on the situation like going outside with no EVA gear in freezing cold, the characters will lose health and die rather quickly. During the simulation we have to constantly monitor the player position, mounted gear, activity levels, food, water and oxygen mixture levels.

The same methods apply to all the equipment in the simulation. An object that is outside in the freezing weather with dust blowing over it will suffer failures much faster than equipment inside. The other factor that applies here is if the equipment is being used or running will tend to wear out and break faster than a unit not being used. Time will cause mechanical objects to break if they are constantly being operated. So everything that can be used or is affecting some portion of the simulation needs to be monitored and the calculation for failure is dependent on its run time and environmental conditions of operation..

Then we have the “jack random” failures where things just break with no reason. It is part of reality and we try to minimize this issue by building objects with the best materials and engineering practices we have but still things will break for no reason. This can be a difficult mode to inject into the simulation but still needs to be allowed to happen.

Every time we add an object to the simulation we have to decide if it can break, how it will break, what will cause it to break and how do we decide to break it. In a perfect world/simulation nothing will break and we just go about the task of completing the tasks given by the simulation. Most testers we have encountered to this point want the failure modes in the simulation to add more challenge or reality to the environment. Without challenge or the possibility of failure the simulation has no validity and generates a lower interest level.

The general operation of executing the mission orders is another level of decision making left to the user. Mission one is the geology survey and the hopes of finding liquid water under the surface. There are enough tools in the simulation to complete this task and the challenge is to do it in an efficient manner. Situations may occur that alter your methodology so it is up to the users to make decisions on how to accomplish the tasks required by the mission.

The latest version of the simulator we added the oxygen mixture valves. A higher concentration of oxygen will allow the characters to heal faster while a lower mixture will cause a faster loss of health and stamina. We added a failure mode for the oxygen tanks in the COHAB so users are faced with the dilemma of mixture settings. If you are low on oxygen you might want to cut back on the mixture to conserve but you do so at the expense of crew health. Set the levels too high and you do so at a higher consumption rate. We also changed the Photo Voltaic array to be 8 separate panels. Any one of the panels can fail and may cause the batteries to drain faster than they are being charged. You can shut down some systems like the lights to conserve energy or stop using some of the equipment that consumes energy. Again, this is a simulation decision that has to be made by the crew on a per incident basis.

As we add more things to the simulation we also add more challenge in the overall operation of creating and maintaining the colony. The next major phase will introduce food production in the form of algae and plant production in a greenhouse environment. The code is in now to actually allow the users to plant seeds and grow plants, harvest and convert the bio material to food or medicine. Users will have to constantly monitor soil, water and temperature to create enough food for survival.

Good luck to all the testers out there, time for me to get back to writing code……

Planning a Mars colony mission

So, you have decided to travel to another world and create a sustainable colony or at least discover if it is possible. It is kind of like moving to some remote location in the middle of the frozen tundra in Siberia. You can’t carry all you might need in one trip so how do you decide what you would need and how many trips it would take. Your plan would also need to include the order of setup. What would be the order of importance for the items? If you were going to spend the night in your new empty house and you could bring one thing what would it be a television or a bed? I would bring the bed and spend a comfortable first night but others may value entertainment over comfort. This is the dilemma facing the planners for the first colony mission to Mars.


Let’s take a look at what needs to be accomplished. First you need to get supplies and people to the surface. Can you do that in a single vehicle? Does it make sense to use two vehicles? What about the return trip to Earth or is this, a one way ticket?  Let’s assume for the moment we have a method of getting the Lander to the planet, which we can cover in another paper so what would that first mission be?


After landing, you know one of the explorers will have to step outside plant a foot on the surface and utter some historic first words. “This footprint cost 122 billion dollars” or “Can ya hear me now?” Next would be to get the solar array working for power. We may bring a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) for power but the Photo Voltaic cells are a good backup and may even provide a safer power source. Either way I bet there will be PV cells at the first Mars colony.


After the power up, computer systems setup, GPS setup and communication setup we want to make sure there is oxygen to breathe. We brought an environmental system that uses frozen oxygen and hydrogen to create energy and water. The oxygen we pull off to breathe will be recycled through CO2 scrubbers. This system will provide what we need to survive for a limited period of time so we had better find water on the planet and soon.


We know the water is here below ground and we need to find it before we run out of something to drink and air to breathe. So set up the soil sampler and start the planet search. How would you conduct the search? That would be a matter for the mission commander to decide. Do a radial pattern or do a grid pattern, search near to far, search by elevation or what ever way you think would help you find water the fastest.


Ok so you found a source for water, sunk a small well and can pump it out fast enough to supply you with something to drink and something to convert to oxygen, now what? If this is all that we did we have a successful mission. We got here and we found a means to survive here so let’s start gathering information about our new home. We took some samples of soil to find the water and can save that information on a geo map for future missions but we can expand our search some and grid the whole area by taking and testing soil or mineral samples. We might find resources that would be useful or alter future missions.


Another major item for the first trip wish list is an enclosed algae system. The system uses carbon dioxide that we breathe out and sunlight to produce a nice green slime that gives off oxygen and can produce food. That technology could provide us with a constant and therefore permanent method to exist on Mars or any other planet that has sun and water.


If there is room on this first mission I would choose to take a makeshift greenhouse and some seeds to see if we can grow something on the planet mainly because man can’t live on slime and crackers forever. Finding water was important to our basic survival but did we find a good enough source to irrigate some plants is the next question. Another major part of the mission planning at this point is to decide if we want to put the farm at the water source or bring the water to the farm. I would be nice if the water source was near the landing site but we can’t plan on that being true. We can’t plan on the source of water being on a flat enough landscape for the next Lander to be near by so I think we start now and plan on moving the water to the colony and farm.


Now that we have the base camp set up and running our explorers can return home for the ticker tape parade (do they still do that?) and the second crew can drop down with a rover and some construction supplies to start adding to the settlement. Will this second crew be permanent is a good question or should we plan on every two years rotating out the crews with new people? There will be a day when they just stay there because they want to. Personally I don’t see this as a permanent settlement until the first Martian child is born.


Simulation design is much like the real thing

Designing the game or simulator is much like making the trip for real. That is a rather bold statement and I don’t want to ever trivialize the efforts of the brave men and women that venture into space for mankind nor the endless hours of work by top engineers to make this happen, but the path is similar none the less.


The Colony ET project is about the destination and not the trip so I will forego the construction of the rocket, the fuel, and the 6 month adventure just to get to Mars and look at this from the point when we crack the hatch at the landing site for the first time.


We have decided to make the trip to another world and now we have to decide how to do it and at what cost. In the game development cycle we try to get a vision of the technical issues to overcome and how long those issues will take to resolve. Time relates directly to money in the case of a game since salaries need to be paid and facilities need to be maintained. In contrast, the companies that have to design and build the parts on a contract basis still have the same types of investments in people and facilities to bring the project to reality.


In the game we have to make the landing zone and paint it to look like where we want to go. That means we make the hills and valleys, put in the sky, the sun and add in the minerals that might be found there. Now that we have a place to exist we have to design the craft that will land our brave souls. The design of the game will draw upon reality in shape and function of what we see in artist conceptions and engineering reality. The landing craft and the first habitat module will probably be the same object and will have a place to sleep, some equipment for exploration, a way to generate power, oxygen and something to eat or a way to make food.


In reality, the engineers need to make the landing craft out of a material that can withstand a landing on the planet, will protect the travelers from storms, and form a mostly air tight seal to provide a safe atmosphere. It will have a door to get outside or a “sally port” double door system to protect the interior atmosphere. The craft will probably have a portal or window to see outside, floor, walls and a ceiling.


The game has mostly the same requirements. When the artists create the structure they have to be sure the space is air tight even though we don’t have actual air in the game we can detect small cracks in the geometry by using light to find the holes but the requirement is the same for both simulation and reality. The skin for our game craft is just polygons and texture. I could add in the ability for our simulation to cause damage to the skin over time from a corrosive atmosphere but we have to make the decision of what is important to the simulation. For Colony ET we want the users to experience the day to day problems facing the explorers to set up a permanent presence on an alien planet and not the microscopic level of reality.


So the big decision by the simulation creator is how much it too much?  How much is not enough. We are giving the user a graphical interface for equipment like a soil sampler. The user will put the sample “here” and press the “sample” button and wait for the result. We could make the user fire up the spectrometer, weigh the sample etc but that might be too much detail for some users and yet not enough for others. The getting of the sample from some location on the planet, the mechanism to test the sample and the data derived from the sample is enough to approximate the activity for our needs. Unless someone wants to pay us to code things down to the nth level of reality I think this will be enough for now. The Colony ET project will have plants that grow over time, drilling machines, wells, photo voltaic cells, batteries, spectrometers and as many other “real” things as we can add to the simulation. We want the users to get the feel of being there and having to deal with the realities like “did someone bring the battery? Krap, Bob how bout you run back and get a battery, oh and bring an extra pv panel while yer at it.”



Mining simulation

How do you simulate the mineral distribution on a alien world for simulation purposes? Big question and many answers can be given to this challenge. How detailed will the simulation or game be? That is the better question to start with. In a simple game we can just randomly drop things where ever we want and call it done or we can add “weight” to the decision and put rare items near the fire breathing dragon. For simulation purposes we want to follow some of the geological rules and the level of adherence would be equal to the level of the simulation. Take for instance if you wanted to find water on a planet that had liquid water where would you look? Since water seeks it’s own level you could assume that the lowest of the elevations would be more likely to have liquid water. If you found some mineral imbedded in a pool of water, I would think you would follow the stream to a higher elevation to find the source.

Some research on geology would provide possible locations for minerals. One such resource for information is Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) now being used to determine what the distribution of matterial on Mars would look like but still the question exists as to why it is so. The planet may have had a cataclysmic impact in the past or there may be seizemic areas where volacnism played a part in distributions and then there is the whole plate techtonic thing we could consider.

The Colony ET project will use a volumetric approach for the actual minerals to be mined and the distribution will be based on the planet type and the landscape. One of the planets we have in operation is volcanic so we are going to base the distribution on that model for both type and location of minerals. Users have to drill down to some unknown level to find minerals then extract them. As the minerals are extracted the volumes decrease and the equipment may need moved to another spot. We think this method will add a bit of realistic uncertainty to the sim.

Organic elements in a simulation

Being on an alien world presents a few challenges in reality that need to be addressed in simulation. Food is one of the main issues. In a pure game environment we can provide the user with virtual food and move on to more interesting things. One of the issues I wanted to address was how would you grow and process food on an alien world. And to that end how would you provide that process in a 3D simulation.

When dealing with simulators you have to understand the audience and what they expect from the product. At one end of the spectrum you have scientists that may want to use the simulator as a tool to help design the food synthesis system. At the other end you may have young people whom you are trying to gain interest in science and technology so a lighter version that demonstrates the action and effects would be better.

The Organics we have in Colony-ET are simple yet all the hooks are in the code to make it as deep an experience as the client wants. Currently, the user has to plant seeds which grow over time to provide a harvestable item that can be used for food, medicine, or fiber. The plants that are “picked” may provide more seeds depending on the age of the plant and the cycle continues. The plants also need water and fertalizer to grow. This can get deep into soil chemistry but we kept it simple for now.

Developing a Persistent Space Colony “Sim” in 3D

Developing a comprehensive “simulation” of space colonization presents many challenges, not the least are the traditional “scientific” and “physical” issues and modeling of the simulation. The struggle is with translating the depth and complexity into a simple simulation – with adequate analogs to “real” tasks and with designing the interface to represent those tasks, success & failure, and script this into something entertaining and addictive to “play.” There are two potential markets here – educational purposes, where the scientific intent is to educate the user on “how to survive” an unknown and hostile new world; or the pure gaming side to develop scenarios and “quests” that bring adventure into the experience.

Adventuring MMOs, such as WoW and EQ2 and others, have greatly bifurcated the “crafting” and “adventuring” requiring a great deal of “downtime” from either aspect to move forward. In a real simulation of colonization, the exploitation of the local resources, processing of those resources, both for survival and for trade become absolutely critical. In short – given finite resources, how do you best manage these to survive and thrive when isolated from other help?

I hope to discuss various elements of this challenge and work out some of the conumdrums as I develop “Colony” further.