Can you help NASA build a Mars Sim in VR?

No matter your project or your field of activity, simulation is a useful tool to find out what you don’t know. In many cases, issues or problems aren’t obvious until you try to do something about it. When it is expensive or difficult, a simulation can be an inexpensive way to discover certain problems without huge costs or undue risks.

Going to Mars is about as difficult and expensive as it gets. So, it’s no surprise that NASA relies on simulations to plan its missions to the Red Planet. Now the space agency is working to create a simulation of Mars in VR for training and evaluation 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 for NASA operations . The simulation will help to find out in advance. 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. There are teams of engineers and scientists who have spent decades improving these tools for the agency.

However, when it comes to putting astronauts on the surface of Mars, NASA really doesn’t have much to do. In the future, astronauts could land on the planet and be tasked with various tasks in the Martian environment. These could be as diverse as exploring on foot or in motorized vehicles, setting up permanent living facilities, or building and troubleshooting equipment to generate resources locally on the surface of Mars.

Humans have never undertaken any of these tasks before, so it’s unclear what challenges might be presented when future astronauts arrive on Mars. Ideally, we’d like to have a pretty good idea of ​​what things will be like before astronauts are left to fend for themselves on a planet tens of millions of miles away. Going to Mars and finding that your tools are too difficult to use, or your accommodations are impractical, would be incredibly frustrating when it’s too late to do anything.

It’s like being there

Thus, a simulation is essential! The agency has already done some of the groundwork itself, creating a Mars environment in Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 5. Known as the Mars XR Operations Support System, the virtual environment simulates conditions on the surface of Mars as they would be experienced. by astronauts. The simulation is intended for use with VR equipment, to allow astronauts or others to feel and act as if they were really on the Red Planet.

So far, there is a simulated Martian day/night cycle with the appropriate sky conditions, as well as the appropriate value for Martian gravity. There are also working rovers and changing weather patterns based on our best knowledge of Martian weather. The simulator includes a huge 400 km² (154 mile²) terrain to navigate 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 camp on Mars to see what challenges this might present for astronauts. Credit: NASA, public domain

With all of this done, NASA has arrived at a new problem. The agency’s Mars simulation is actually too precise. Much like the planet itself, there is actually nothing to do. That’s where the public comes in. NASA created the MarsXR Challenge, tasking the public with filling the Mars Simulator with useful content. Naturally, the simulator must be filled with assets and realistic scenarios in order to be an effective training and investigation aid for NASA and its astronauts.

Seb Loze, Unreal Engine Business Manager for Simulations at Epic Games, notes the opportunity this presents to those who get involved. Creators can use Unreal Engine to create realistic simulation scenarios to prepare NASA for future missions, whether to the moon or to Mars,” Loze said, adding, “Whether you’re a game designer, an architect , a hobbyist or a rocket scientist, anyone can build with UE5, and we can’t wait to see the immersive simulations the community has to offer. »

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

The competition is hosted on the HeroX crowdsourcing platform, which helps customers share projects with the general public to find useful and unique solutions. According to the challenge website, there are five distinct categories that competitors can get involved in. Four are task-oriented categories, including setting up camp, scientific research, maintenance, and exploration. The final category, Blow Our Minds, is an invitation for creatives and technical experts to create something that simply wows the judges beyond expectation.

The challenge comes with a cash prize of $70,000, which will be shared among 20 individual prizes. Each category has four prizes, with the top winner in each taking home $6,000 for their work. However, there is no need to limit yourself or your team. NASA welcomes multiple entries in multiple categories, and entrants are also eligible for multiple prizes.

You might have a great idea for a Martian medical simulation, or maybe an exciting mission where astronauts go deep into the red desert on something akin to the Lunar Roving Vehicle. Perhaps you would like to simulate a recovery operation to bring back the brave Spirit rover, which has served with distinction and deserves to come home.

Whatever your ideas, the deadline for submissions is July 27, 2022. Pitch an idea, gather your team and get started!

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