Colony Stories – A New Mission

Hi readers,

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing and posting a story about a return, 3 person mission to Mars. Before we begin the stories, I want to address a few things directly – to avoid any confusion.

1. The likelihood of a single manned mission – as expressed in the first story series – is pretty low. The risks involved are too great and additional team members ensure a higher probability of success. The “logs” were loosely based on my experiences running Mars Colony Simulator (alpha and beta) in single player mode… and it is conceivable that once these kinds of missions are regular, that a series of bases, manned temporarily by a single person, could be established. I would guess however, that a larger “local” base, with a full staff and facilities would be required to allow for this kind of pioneering effort to be considered. Personally – I see this idea much like the hundreds of pioneers that set out alone to establish the West in North America. They grouped together to make the treck, but split into smaller groups and individuals to setup homesteads, farms and ranches. Other pushed on to the west coast. My point is that there is a key spirit of discovery, pioneering and risk taking that will be a central criteria for successful colonization… whether for long term expansion of civilization or for resource harvesting.

2. To increase the “challenge” the next story will focus on a 3-person mission, rather than 4. As a focus, I am going to dwell the relational aspects and interactivity – the actual tasks will start to take a bit more of a backseat. We are also picking up elements of “Mission 2” – under development by Hyperkat for the commercial release of the simulator. I am not a psychologist nor a behavior expert, but will draw on historical events, as well as logs and mission reports from the Mars Society missions, and my experiences managing diverse teams. I look forward to putting three highly capable pioneers into the stressful grinder of a return mission to mars, and watching how their personalities and capabilities run up against difficult circumstance.

3. I will try to mix both narative and the “log” report format, to provide some continuity, as well as a few directive’s from Command and Control back on earth. Dealing with the (6 minute) delay is very hard in fiction – real time communication is not practical, so the focus will be on broadcast audio, some limited video and email/report communication, so while “real life” will have more direct communication, this story line will have very little. In fact, my early drafts feel a bit like Command and Control is very passive.

I hope that you enjoy the series.

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……

Can you cut it? We need testers…

Hi gang,

Well, Mars Colony Simulator is well on its way to a public demo release, but we need fresh eyes and strong backs to polish this up. A few of you have already been to Mars, but we need a few more pioneers!

Because the bug fix schedule is unpredictable, we are building an invitation list to query when we need a new test run. Usually we will need 2-3 hours of your time. Oh there are some requirements…

1. Windows users only… there is no Mac port of this project.

2. We will screen for system specifications… so will ask that you send some system information ahead of time. We have tested on laptops and mid-high end desktop computers so you will most likely pass. A good graphics card is useful. You can find out your specifications by running DXDIAG from your Start/Run menu.

3. You need broadband internet access… we don’t really care what brand, although GPRS or 3G modems will experience significant lag problems.

4. We prefer you use a headset with microphone and require Teamspeak. This information will be forwarded to you in the invitation.

Why Teamspeak? There is currently no in game radio system. Teamspeak will run in the background allowing you to talk with other testers during the game… this is far more efficient for communication than the console chat.

Teamspeak is a free client download – you can find it at http://www.teamspeak.com/ . Those of you that play a lot of FPS or MMO games maybe familiar with Teamspeak already. Teamspeak will require a microphone, configured through your system’s “Sounds” control panel.

Please setup “Push to talk” hotkey, we suggest the left CTRL button, if you are not using a headset mic. This prevents echo problems and feedback when using live speakers, and keeps the background noise down. 

In the invitation, you will be provided with the server IP address to join. While only 4 people are supported in a given Colony instance, feel free to join in. There may be people dropping out because of schedule – freeing a slot.

How to join…

Please send an email to hdortch@hyperkat.com. Include your name, location, email address and a general description of your PC. It is also useful to know if you are a space enthusiast or professional.

Testing sessions are happening about 3-4 times a week, during major updates and bug fixes, and occur during evenings on weekdays – and anytime on the weekends.

We want your input!

I am creating a series of polls to start getting some high level feedback on YOUR interest in a Space Colony Simulation, specifically a Mars Colony application…

Storyline: Colony Reports, A Surprise Discovery

12/24/2012, 13:15 PHX

Missions are entirely completed. I have a full survey of the 500 meters surrounding the COHAB site, and heading through the final preparations for return. I am waiting return instructions and the proposed launch windows. The storms have been increasing in intensity of late, and some minor damage has reduced the solar array’s effectiveness. I have been running at the lightest possible load to ensure enough battery charge before leaving. The return missions here will need to bring additional PV panels, and possibly a replacement battery system.

I hit another snag in the generation of fuel. Running a single pump means carefully metering water to the COHAB and the ERV for fuel. In running the COHAB lean, I have been able to get enough fuel reserved for a safe take off, however oxygen still needs to be capped off. I am planning to divert the ERV rations to the COHAB to store up adequate oxygen and transfer the last requirements tomorrow.

12/25/2012, 18:16 PHX

I found an anomaly in the sampling data earlier. About 56 meters south of the ERV I have found traces of methane. My first assumption was that I had a leak in the EVR fuel system, but it all checked out. My only conclusion is that either there actually is methane or that somehow the samples were contaminated. I resampled around the general area and found a “cluster” of samples – with a very regular dispersion pattern consistent with gas leakage.

There is no protocol for drilling and recovering methane, and I tested the stability of the surface gases with a torch. Not enough oxygen present it seems to make it flammable. So I setup the drill and dropped a 25 meter hole. The hole is venting a visible fog stream into the atmosphere, and I was able to recover some water vapor. While the LIBS cannot test vapor or gas, I managed to mix some of the gas and local sand by condensing the vapor in a plastic tent. The LIBS analysis showed 60% water with about 15 ppm methane. This is exciting, because there are very few geological explanations. While scientists believed to find methane clouds in 2010, few people were willing to entertain the idea of biological determination.

I have sampled and bio-bagged the aggregate mud returned from the drill. I do not have the time or the facilities to do any biological testing here on planet. I will need to modify the rock bin on the ERV to ensure these are properly secured and can survive the trip home.

12/26/2012, 02:15 PHX

Countdown to return is on, however I am more than a little irritated. It seems that a new protocol is rerouting me to the international space station for biological isolation. If I have been exposed to any kind of bacteria, germ or virus, they will need to figure out the danger, as well as begin to analyze the samples.

This delays my return to my family significantly. The good news is that I am also to get credit for the discovery, although actual ownership will remain a corporate asset. The bad news is that I am now a corporate asset if I have been contaminated. I don’t believe there is any real danger, although I was exposed to the exterior of my suit  in the COHAB. I feel fine and doubt that any bacterium would survive outside their own unique extreme environment.

Regardless, this will be my last entry. I am scheduled to lift off at 04:00 PHX and will be starting the life support procedures shortly. It has been exactly 26 days since I landed, and there have been some crazy challenges. All in all I am pleased with my performance. Physiologically, I have lost 12 pounds and my suit is a lot looser  now. Otherwise, no  other medical conditions. I am a bit nervous about the launch, I recall descriptions of these kinds of launches as a bit like riding a bomb. The computers manage the entire procedure, and I will be tightly strapped in, and sedated. I hate needles, and I guess now I am going to see a lot more of them at the space station.

Signing off. By the way, I am looking at my last sunset. The sun is cresting on the edge of the crater, creating deep red and orange shadows. I have worn a path that runs between the wellhead and the COHAB that looks purple in the fading light. Off to the west is a massive dust storm catching the dimming light. I can’t say this has been the most comfortable few weeks, but I am looking forward to coming back. There is a lot to do and a lot to gain. If I am lucky, we will be able to bring an oxygen garden and the diet can expand to something besides freeze dried sludge.

Message to my family: I am looking forward to our reunion. I have a lot to share with you all and miss you very much.

Storyline: Colony Reports, Zeus found

12/15/2012, 13:15 PHX

I found the remains of the Zeus Rover this morning while on a hike searching for new geologic samples. Since I have finally gotten the routine maintenance down to a couple of hours, and the fuel conversion is fully supplied, I decided to take on the extended sampling mission. 

The Zeus Rover went silent several years past its prime and expected functionality, I think late 2009. It seemed that an unusual storm was heading into the area near the rover, and after the storm passed, no new signals were sent. Interestingly, the original Phoenix and Opportunity took on a special “life” at NASA and JPL, and were bestowed a kind of honorary status. My understanding is that I am to only recover a key memory module, and leave the wreckage intact, while carefully marking the spot.

I set out about 10:15 PHX this morning heading north, intending to climb out of the crater, and sample at 100 meter points on tangent from the lander. This process is extremely tiring and time consuming, and I can only carry 4 properly bagged 15 gram samples at a time, due to limitations in the suit. I found an unusual shape, a long cylinder, with a shiny black window, barely peeking out of a rock pile. This took me about 20 meters off my target tangent, about 380 meters from the COHAB. I logged this into the GPS and took two samples nearby.

It took me a couple of hours to carefully remove the rocks and dust from the top of the rover. The damage is extensive, the camera boom is entirely detached from core body, and the solar panels are smashed. Protocol requires a system check, however the rover was unresponsive. I could not locate any of the external access hatches, and did not have the proper toolkit with me in any case. 

I returned to the COHAB, and will make another EVA to the site later.

12/15/2012, 16:12 PHX

A minor dust storm swept through on my way back to the COHAB. I am simply not prepared to deal with these amazing winds, nor the noise they generate. While minor in comparison to other such storms, a very strong gust was blowing nearly vertical up the crater, and I could barely move against the wind, and visibility was nearly zero. It took me almost a full 40 minutes to fight my way back to the COHAB.

Kudos to the engineers of the COHAB, the insulation effectively buffers the noise outside, with the occasional exception of small debris raining down. It has been several hours of silence, preceding this storm, and I had adjusted to only the sound of my breathing and the scraping sounds of the geo sampling. The storm ramped up the noise about 60 decibels inside my helmet, and the small rocks that struck my suit sounded like a fastball hitting a catcher’s mitt less the “Steeeeeriiiiike” from an umpire. It’s incredibly disorienting and I have a loud ringing in my ear. This was NOT covered in the training. Fortunately, a few meds have taken off the edge.

Another pressure system is moving in. I will not make it back to the rover today.

12/16/2012, 9:18 PHX

Beautiful calm day today. Made it back to the rover with my toolkit. I was only able to expose a bus connector, and connected my computer to download the information. Fortunately, my kit contained the proper adapter and was able to fit into the bus. It was clean and no dust or grit had gotten in. I found a couple of the wheels, one smashed and one more or less intact. and returned them to the lander. Against protocol, but I feel as if I have found the body of a former Colonist, so I stacked some rocks around the wreckage, forming a sort of cairn. I didn’t dig up the whole wreck, and certainly couldn’t lift the rover, so I wrapped some plastic around Zeus first. Perhaps someone can return and fully recover the relic.

The GPS location is 92 495 1262. The cairn fully covers the wreckage, and I have planted a pole into the cairn to mark the location. I wish I had a flag, seems more fitting. Around the cairn, I scratched out and laid out large rocks in the form of a 4 point star, aligned to the poles. We should have no problems finding it again. That said, some of these storms can bring several inches of dust and debris. I expect it will be covered again soon, leaving only the pole.

I cannot explain my feelings on this matter. I feel sad, as if I have lost a friend. I know the rover was a robot, and served well past any wild expectations. Perhaps that is it… a feeling that I should persevere and refocus. Get this done so we can return and start building the colony.

Storyline: Colony Reports, Thanksgiving Slurry

11/24/2012, 04:15 PHX

Major malfunctions with the well head this morning. I was awakened by an alarm that the well head pump had exceeded the capacity of the attached container. When I got out there, about 150 meters from the lander, it was clear what had happened. It seems that the heat tape failed and the well head had frozen. Simple physics will tell you that water expands about 20% after freezing, and the entire well head cracked, from the riser pipe into the container valve, resulting in a catastrophic failure. Interesting to note that water continues to come up and freeze on contact with the surface, making repairs nearly impossible. I recovered as much of the frozen water as I could, breaking the ice into large chunks and hauling back to the lander. Difficult since the containers I have are setup for a pressurized release – and have a 4 inch opening.

I jerry-rigged a plastic tarp inside the breezeway and have left containers under the tarp with a small drip hole to catch the water as it melts. Not the best solution – but it works. I now have enough water to sustain the lander for another few weeks. And should have some spare to feed the seperator and algae tanks.

11/24/2012, 11:54 PHX

I have the well head in the bunk house to see what I can salvage. I noticed an interesting phenomenon with the well. When I freed the well head, water continued to surge out, at about a gallon a minute. Not great flow, but certainly interesting. It seems the pressure below is greater than in the atmosphere. The water freezes into a flow pattern, but also evaporates into the atmosphere creating a general fog around the hole. A high pressure system came over while I was dragging the well head home, and the water ceased flowing. Apparently the balance of pressure is delicate.

Fortunately I have another well head, and will find a nearby area to create a new drill site and seat the well head. I plan to layer some insulation around the well head system this time to help prevent heat loss – and will connect another sensor to the heat tape in case it fails.

Need a break for lunch. yesterday I harvested some algae and have freeze dried it following the protocol. It dries in layers, not unlike nori used in sushi back home. Supposedly I can use it in broth, or toast the sheets and eat them. Will see. More later.

11/24/2012, 21:35 PHX

The temperature in the breeze way (or pressure lock if you prefer) is just barely above freezing, and I have been leaving open the lander hatch to let some of the heat into that area. It is very slow going. The safety timer on the door keeps throwing an alarm, so there has been little rest or relief. Every three minutes alarms blare and the system wants to go through a full debug check.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving back on Earth. I am thankful I have survived so far, but still not too sure about this mission.

11/25/2012, 08:15 PHX

Happy Turkey Day. I have set out the “T-Day” dinner pouches to thaw. Looks like turkey, yams and stuffing, with what appears to be pumpkin pie. Looking forward to the change.

Unpacked the spare well head last night. Yet another slightly different model from what I was trained on. Going to have to modify my tools and wrenches to properly fit. Today will install over the new well hole drilled over night. I haven’t checked the drill yet – but the computer shows a successful drop and water. Can’t go out just yet because of another dust storm.

11/25/2012, 12:10 PHX

I am giving myself the rest of the day off. I successfully installed the new well head and it is pumping liquid water into container, albeit a bit slower than the previous well. I suspect the old well has not fully frozen closed and pressure is leaking out.

I managed to gather enough ice to melt another 15-20 gallons of water. This will go into the fuel separator. I need an immense amount of hydrogen, and oxygen. For fuel and for air. The melt rig is working well, except I have a pressure lock with about an inch of slush and mud on the floor.

Turkey dinner, more like turkey slurry. Freeze drying takes more than just the water out of food – it takes the flavor and texture turning everything into a mush. I got a bit too much water into the turkey and it was more soup than meat. Still – the hint of familiar flavors brought back some interesting memories. The pie was the best… and I got the mix just right. It was more like a pumpkin shake with some flaky bits and lumps, but the sweet was really welcome.

I got the message today from Earth, checking in on things and wishing me a wonderful Thanksgiving. The afternoon is full of storms, some pretty rough, so no EVA the rest of the day anyhow.

Call me sentimental, but I called back watching parades and football at home. Didn’t have much of a home life, and most holidays ended in alcohol soaked fights, but for one or two perfect hours – it was nice. Anyway – no booze here – but cheers to my family and friends. I am well, eternally cold, and likely too freeze dry myself here. Tomorrow I have to make up the lost hours, but for now – I am grabbing my book (Ayne Rand, The Fountainhead) and a glass of tea and curling up in the bed for the rest of the day. Happy Thanksgiving.

Storyline: Colony Reports, the first two days

11.18.2012, 08:17 PHX

The landing was successful, with only a few areas of damage. I have confirmed the return vehicle is operational, however significant fuel leaks will require repair, and re-composition of fuel reserves are necessary. The generation of fuel will require finding a significant source of water, which is underway.

It was a beautiful morning, but cold. I underestimated how cold it could be here. The landscape is beautiful and orange. I prefer to view it without the blue filters in my EVA suite enabled, although the brightness is a bit stark. I am surrounded by hills of painted rocks and soil, much richer than expected. I am sheltered in a large crater, that is beginning to fill in from erosion, but it creates a wonderful sunrise and sunset, particularly as the light shows through the dusty winds.

11.18.2012 12:00 PHX

Still adjusting to clock cycles. I have given up trying to keep up with earth time.

The lander module status is fine; however, I seem to be using water, food and air at a more rapid pace than predicted. This reduces the original estimate of 2 weeks down to something more like 10 days. The GPR device is functioning, however I am losing some of the results due to a glitch in GPS readings. This makes it extremely difficult to return to measurement sites as the wind quickly erodes the footprint left by the device.

I should note that I have found what appears to be icy formations about 80 centimeters below an area I have dubbed the Swamp. I have not been able to successfully analyze the crystals themselves as they evaporate in the pressure lock. I suspect these are not water, but a frozen gas. I am working to determine what possible gas formations can crystallize under the prevailing temperatures and pressures outside.

11.18.2012 20:17 PHX

Tired. Hungry. Again I underestimated the physical demands of this mission. The food is terribly bland and I am finding that spending more than a few cycles in EVA is wearing.

Found a likely sight for a water well. The oxide levels are high – so I am concerned about contamination. My estimates on current sustainability of existing resources will be further dialed back, meaning that I must bring my water levels up to 50% in about 8 days or face a prolonged stay. Our data on available water at this site, however, seem accurate. It seems that I have found a large water source about 180 meters from the lander. This is good news as lugging the drill and well head will be difficult.

While checking drill and well head status, was caught in a dust storm. The electrical and radiological activity was significant. Faced bright light but white out conditions. It took about 40 minutes to locate the lander visually as the EVA suit electronics were not functioning properly. Need to pay closer attention to pressure levels and the weather prediction systems.

11.19.2012 06:14 PHX

EVA suit is not recharging properly. I am forced to take apart the suit systems and clean all of the  connections. Significant powdery dust has accumulated in all of exposed connections and seems to be creating interference.

11.19.2012 08:47 PHX

Suit maintenance is completed. It seems that some of the materials oxidized the connections. I cleaned all of the terminals and the suite is fully charged. I must admit a bit of reluctance to climb back into the EVA suit and head out. I am still quite sore from yesterday.

11.19.2012 14:34 PHX

Success. The drill is currently pushing down to an estimated depth of 72 meters. I have found water. Tomorrow, will be setting up the well head, assuming I have hit an adequate pressure source.

The drill was a bit finicky. It seems the model provided is older than the more automated tool I trained on. Basic principles apply and I should have no issues retrieving the drill.

This was another terribly difficult day. There were three critical storms that slowed things down. In one case, I was forced to abandon the drill and return to the lander module. I am performing maintenance at every opportunity with the EVA suite. While this slows me down significantly, I am able to keep the suite at peak operating status throughout the day. Map module seems to be working again, but maintenance of all facilities are necessary and more frequently than protocol suggests.

Solar panels are covering up with the powdery dust. This dust seems to be a product of sand and soil that gets caught up in the plasma generated by storms. My analysis shows a variety of chemical traces all burned and sterilized in high temperature. After each storm, there seems to be an “ash fall” like event which is piling up on all horizontal surfaces. Also – the dust appears to be acidic, and has caused minor burns on my skin. All future maintenance of the suite will require gloves for cleaning.