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Norwegian students working with a georadar on Mars

By Berit Ellingsen

The following content is adapted from CENSSS Annual Report 2022

The RIMFAX team at CENSSS includes several Master’s students. What are their tasks and how did they get the job?

Students working with RIMFAX operations on Mars. From left to right: Lisa Julianne Nystad, Søren Blåberg Tvingsholm, Amalie Sjursen Nyheim, and Kristin Lund

Since Perseverance and RIMFAX landed in Jezero Crater on Mars on the 18th of February 2021, they have investigated several locations in the crater.

- So far Perseverance and RIMFAX have covered more than 15 kilometers and taken several samples of the surface and atmosphere. These will be sent back to Earth by a sample return mission later on, says Tor Berger, science coordinator at CENSSS and instrument operations lead on the RIMFAX team.

Berger is responsible for the day to day operations of RIMFAX, as well as the testing and debugging of the RIMFAX software when JPL releases new versions of their own software. He’s also involved in the development of processing tools for the RIMFAX data.

RIMFAX, the Norwegian georadar on Mars

- With RIMFAX we can look into the subsurface and see various layers and geological structures, Berger says.

The RIMFAX team has also matched RIMFAX profiles with the main map and photographic data that JPL has constructed of the area based on orbital imagery.

- There’s been no major surprises yet. The bottom of the crater contained a lot of volcanic material and there RIMFAX could see from 10 to 15 meters into the subsurface. Now that Perseverance has reached the old river delta, we’re seeing other materials underground, and can peer up to 20 meters down into the subsurface, says Berger. This is deeper than it is possible to see with a georadar on Earth in many places, because the subsurface on Mars is much drier, with less attenuation of the radar waves.

Currently Perseverance will be driving up the river delta until about the middle of March 2023. When Perseverance is on the move, RIMFAX is active.

The student tasks

- We have 4 students from the University of Oslo on our team. Two are Master’s degree students and two are finishing up their Bachelor’s degree and moving on to their Master’s degree, says Berger.

The students have been part of the RIMFAX team for more than a year. They started in November 2021 with an initial period of training and participated in the day to day operations during all of 2022.

The daily work with RIMFAX includes uplinking new commands to tell the georadar what to do next, and to coordinate RIMFAX’s activities with those of the other instruments on Perseverance.

- The other part is downlinking the data from RIMFAX and then process and analyze these, along with telemetry to check the health status of the instrument, Berger says.

The students on the team are involved in both the uplink as well as the downlink activities. Thus, they can cover when someone is sick, traveling or away from the team for other reasons.

Trained by doing, not just by reading

- We started by training the students for some months. Our procedures for RIMFAX are collected in a manual and the students read this, and then learned by performing the procedures themselves, says Berger.

The team has nearly daily telecon meetings with the entire Perseverance team at JPL and all the teams working with the other instruments on the rover. Here the day to day operations are planned and coordinated.

- At first our students sat in with us during these meetings. Then the students took part in the meetings with us teachers sitting in. Finally, the students participated in the meetings on their own, with the possibility of contacting members of the team for questions or unexpected events, says Berger.

Not many students in Norway have the opportunity to be part of controlling a rover on Mars.

- The feedback we get from the students is that they really enjoy this and find it very exciting, Berger says.

Works from home

- Of the uplink and downlink shifts on RIMFAX, my favorite is the downlink shift because I enjoy taking part of the telecon meetings and doing the presentation of the day’s activities to the rest of the teams, which also include several students, says Lisa Julianne Nystad, one of the students working with RIMFAX.

She’s about to start her Bachelor’s thesis in Geophysics and Climate and will be going on to a Master’s degree in the fall of 2023.

Nystad and the other students on the RIMFAX team work approximately 30 hours a month, on shifts that last about 5 hours.

- In the beginning, during the training period, there was a lot to learn and a lot of new procedures to get used to. But now that the uplink and downlink processes have become routine, I know what to expect and can do the job from home, Nystad says.

I first check the list of parameters to downlink the data from RIMFAX, before doing so. I also check that everything that should be included in the data is there, and transfer them to the Perseverance server at JPL. Then I make certain that we are green and go for the next day of work on Mars, she continues.

A ten out of ten job

Nystad plans on using the data from RIMFAX in her Bachelor’s thesis, and one of the scientists on the team will be her thesis advisor.

- I haven’t decided on a Master’s degree and theme for my Master’s thesis yet, but it will be natural to expand on the data and results from the Bachelor’s degree, Nystad says.

It was a personal interest in space science and space exploration that made her apply when she saw the message from the RIMFAX team inviting students at the Department of Geological Sciences to work with the Norwegian georadar.

- It’s really fun and absolutely ten out of ten to be one of the students in Norway who is working with a rover on Mars. If you ever get a chance to do something similar, I will recommend everyone to send in an application. You never know who will be picked for the job, and it might just be you, Nystad says.

Space Systems – a new Master’s degree at UiO

There has been no shortage of students interested in space, space systems in general and in working with RIMFAX.

The team is very happy to include the Master’s students and pleased with the interest the student body has in RIMFAX, Perseverance and other space related activities at the University of Oslo.

- We are enjoying working with the students as they are very enthusiastic and inquisitive, and asking the right kinds of questions. They are learning a lot from being part of our team, but so are we from teaching and training them, says Berger.

From the fall of 2023, the Department of Technology Systems at the University of Oslo will be offering a Master’s degree in Space Systems. - CENSSS is involved in the courses for this new degree. We are hoping to have many enthusiastic and interested students, and that the new degree will contribute to Norway’s growing space sector, Berger concludes.



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