The WeMartians Blog

Other items of interest from the fourth planet

It’s been a while since I last updated the story of the new studio renovation. Two months in fact! The truth is, I ended up getting really sick in November with a bad viral infection.

The face of death.

I missed three weeks of work and struggled to keep up with…anything…really. Thankfully, that’s behind me now, and so are the holidays. I’m easing back in to studio renovation and wanted to share a short but super cool update on some products that arrived in the mail.

Acoustics Matter

Of course, if I want to record audio in the studio, the acoustics of the room are super important. This became painfully obvious as I recorded a few episodes of Red Planet Review in the empty room with laminate floors. Everything echoed.

It will get better with furniture and a rug or two, but as I went over the design I realized there will still be a giant flat wall behind me at my desk. Without treatment it would become a strong source of second bounces that I wanted to eliminate (first bounces will be off the wall in front of me).

The Bouncer

My good friend and podcasting life partner Anthony from Main Engine Cut Off recommended a company that makes acoustic panelling called ATS Acoustics. They make all shapes and sizes of panels but are pretty plain and wouldn’t really lend any thematic support to my space studio. This was especially important because this wall would appear behind me when I streamed or did video conversations with guests.

Their stock panels look like this:

Boring Panels

However, I noticed they also make custom art-print panels. This meant I could pick any kind of image I want and have them stick it on a panel. Perfect! That’s easy, there are tons of amazing space pictures to choose from. In fact, there are so many, it’s actually its own problem. How do I even choose?! Well, first I had to figure out the format, and for this I turned to my trusty Discordians in the Off-Nominal Discord.

Picking Panels

I started with three options for layout.

Option A could make for some really nice panoramas. I thought about picking two great Curiosity panorama made using its Mastcam, like the awesome one that was printed along a huge wall at LPSC last March.

Option C would give me the largest canvas to work with. It would be great for a super high res image, like maybe some of the great Pluto shots from New Horizons, or a beautiful HRSC shot from Mars Express, like the recent one making the rounds of Korolev Crater:

Korolev Crater, Mars. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

In the end, I settled on Option B with the help of my patrons in the Discord. It would offer me lots of space for high detail, but give me the flexibility of having two separate images. Each panel would be two feet wide and three feet tall. Now I just had to pick the images.

A Space for Space

One image processor I’ve always been a fan of is Seán Doran (Twitter: @_TheSeaning) out of London, England. Seán does all kinds of incredible work with publicly available image data, like portraits of Mars, rendered flybys using digital terrain modelling of places like Jezero Crater, and even stitched Juno images of Jupiter to create a simulated video of a perijove.

I settled on the idea of using the two frames to create a juxtaposition, a duality of places that I think fits well with the podcast themes: The Moon and Mars. One, a place we’ve been and hope to go back to again, and another, a place on the horizon. These two worlds have lived in contrast to one another for a long time and I wanted to encapsulate that debate behind me.

Seán has done work on both places, so I was in luck. I picked out two of my favourite pieces and contacted him about licensing. Just my luck, he’s super cool and let me print the pieces for whatever licensing price he thought was fair. I was happy to send a little cash his way, because it was totally worth it when these showed up at my door.

Fresh custom acoustic panels. My cat Admiral Fitzwallace was not interested.

Mounting the Planets

Now I had the fun task of getting these puppies on the wall. Started with some painter’s tape to get a rough idea of where I wanted them. This is a useful skill my wife taught me to easily visualize things.

ATS sends great templates to help with mounting. So I stuck it to the wall and levelled it. Then you just drill the holes out where they say to!

Each hole was fitted with an anchor and then the special included Z-clips were affixed to the wall. Rinse and repeat for the second panel. It was extra fun lining up the anchors so they were not only level but matching themselves in height.

The backs of the panels are then fitted with the same Z-clips, but flipped upside down. This way, they slot in to each other.

And just like that the hard part was over. The two panels went up super quick and were steady and level.

Voilà! Now it not only sounds good in here, but future WeMartians guests will stare at Seán’s lovely work throughout their interviews. That should improve the content, right?

A year ago we set a Patreon goal in order to fund a travel grant that would help an early career scientist travel to a conference and present their work on Mars. Last March, we gave a preview of what the grant might look like. Today, thanks to the generous support of the WeMartians Patrons, the Grant is a reality.

Starting immediately, attendees of the upcoming Lunar and Planetary Science Conference are invited to apply for the WeMartians Travel Grant.

Why are we doing this?

WeMartians mission statement is to engage the public in the exploration of Mars in a simple, fun, educational and inspiring way. Funding early career scientists as they pursue a life exploring Mars seems like the perfect fit. But this is also how the podcast gives back to the science community which has been nothing but generous and gracious with their time, helping me create great content for you to hear.

Why a travel grant?

Conferences like LPSC are excellent opportunities for early career people to network, learn about their trade, and share their work with others. They are hubs for collaboration and contribute significantly to our understanding of the field. WeMartians has connected with many people through LPSC that resulted in interviews for the show.

But they’re expensive! From flights to hotels, transportation, food and registration fees, attending a week-long conference has all the expense of a vacation with none of the relaxation. Research grants don’t always stretch far enough to cover these expenses, leaving many scientists to fund travel themselves.

The WeMartians Travel Grant hopes to alleviate some of these costs.

The poster session of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

You can help!

Even if you’re not already a patron of WeMartians, you can help contribute to the fund by picking up our special edition PLANETARY t-shirt. 100% of the proceeds will go towards the grant, adding to the base award of $750 USD. Pick up the shirt by the end of January to contribute to this year’s award! Purchases after January 31st will go towards the 2020 grant.

If you don’t want the shirt, we’re also accepting donations directly to the grant.

Support the Grant with a Shirt or Donation

I’m heading to LPSC to present my abstract! How can I apply?

The 2019 application period is now over. Stay tuned for next year’s announcement!

The holiday season is here, and to mark the season we’ve got some great new additions to the WeMartians Shop.

Winter Space Helmets!

It’s winter, and that means you could be losing valuable heat energy right out of the top of your head! Ramp up your personal thermal inertia with these new WeMartians branded toques! That’s a knit cap or a beanie if you’re from somewhere other than Canada! Useful even if you don’t live somewhere cold (since it’s always cold on Mars). They’re available for $17 USD now!

New Branded Gear

We’re expanding our branded gear. If you’re a fan of our Patron-exclusive weekly bonus podcast Red Planet Review, you can now sport its newspaper-style logo on a comfy heather grey tee for just $19 USD. Plus, the RPR logo as well as the WeMartians podcast logo are all available in a new tank top style for just $17 USD.

Off-Nominal Tees – Finally!

We’re long overdue, but you can now finally pick up an Off-Nominal Podcast tee-shirt! All proceeds from the sales of these shirts go towards supporting the joint side-project between WeMartians and Main Engine Cut Off, including hosting fees and Off-Nominal Meetups, which happen sporadically. This particular model is on a high quality tri-blend shirt and has an easter egg for the fans!

Plus, now you can cast your vote in the upcoming New Frontiers downselect by choosing a side in the Dragonfly vs. CAESAR debate. Anthony and I did so on episode 4 of Off-Nominal and now you can show your support for whatever mission you’re in to.

ExoMars – Full Colour and Stereo!

We’ve been missing an ExoMars shirt for a while, considering it was the first mission that we covered seriously! Inspired by the full colour and stereo nature of the onboard CaSSIS camera with the Trace Gas Orbiter, we’ve come up with this new colourful design that lets you proudly tell the world you think Mars is pretty. This premium design is just $22 USD and includes reduced shipping costs for European customers.

Of course, all of our famous designs are still available if you haven’t picked these up yet! You might especially want to get your InSight Good Vibes launch tee ahead of its landing in just a couple of weeks! It is still available for $19 USD.

The InSight Good Vibes premium T-Shirt design from WeMartians.

The InSight Good Vibes premium T-Shirt design from WeMartians.

So head over to the Shop today and support an independent Mars podcast! And remember, if you’re a Station-level or higher Patron ($10/month+), you get permanent discounts in our shop year-round!

Welcome to part 3 of our saga to build a new podcast studio! In September I shared part 1 and part 2, covering some of the paint choices and digging into baseboards and trim! It’s been a busy few weeks for me including three conferences and two out of town trips, so I’m a bit behind. Nonetheless, I’m catching up and can share some progress on wire management and some work on our big window!

Wiring in some Cat6 Cabling

I use a Google Wi-Fi mesh network in my home, but for some reason the access point in this office, which is wired into the modem, could not penetrate the floor and reach the living room below very well. So sitting on the couch with an iPad, streaming anything to the TV, or just working on a laptop in the dining room adjacent had really spotty wireless internet. While we had the whole office torn apart, we decided to run some Cat6 cables up the fireplace trunk to provide a wired connection to the access point downstairs. It was quite the challenge.

First in this process was to ensure that we could actually find a path for the Cat6 cabling. I knew there was a gap there for the vent on the gas fireplace and the drain for the washrooms upstairs. My hunch was that this trunk was the backbone of the entire house for electrical, plumbing and ventilation, so there was probably room for two cables.


I cut two small holes first. I wanted to keep them below where I knew the baseboard would go to avoid patching. But wow did it make it difficult to navigate. For starters, the bulkhead didn’t line up exactly with the one downstairs so I “missed” by about 8 inches. Inside there were some vents, but also a metal plate to seal the gap between floors. Luckily, there was also a small, 4 inch piece of drywall that had been used to cover one tiny part missing. It felt like corner cutting to me, but I took advantage of it and slipped the cables down in it. But then I had the problem of working downstairs.

So then it was time to route the cabling into its final resting place. Upstairs, I didn’t want to run it through all the studs along the wall, so since I had the baseboard off I cheated and used the gap between the floor and the wall, plus the space under the drywall, to fulfill my needs. Then I wired the two cables into a jack!

Downstairs, I repeated the same thing behind the TV.

New Baseboard Heaters

If you remember from the before shots, there was this original, twenty-year old baseboard heater that had basically been painted in to the wall. We of course tore it out.

This is the east-facing wall. The studio desk will go along this wall, and the monitor setup in the right-hand corner. The room has a beautiful deep window working for it here, and a spot for a nice baseboard heater to warm my feet in the cold Canadian winter (current one is old and bad).

And so we went to work replacing it. By this time we’ve pulled all the baseboards off and removed the old heater.

Dressing the Window

I’m super excited about the big window in the office. It is about 6 feet wide and 4 feet tall, and it’s 9 inches deep, which is perfect for putting cats on.

But then it was on the actual plan. I want this window to pop. I want it to be a feature of the room. I want it to be that bright Humanity Star that blots out your astronomical observations and makes you so mad about how cool it is. My wife had a great idea.

And so off to Home Depot we went. We wanted to put some natural wood feel into the room, since so far it was pretty stark, clinical and monochrome. There would be an eventual tie-in with the desk, too.

Back home it was time to install the plywood!

Because the plywood is so thin it doesn’t interrupt the function of the window or intrude too much into the space of the window sill. But it adds a little bit of life and accent to the feature. To do the rest, the old gross blinds had to come out.

Here’s a shot with the whole window done with the plywood/veneer framing, and the old blinds dead and gone. We’ve also got all the painting done in this photo, though there is still some cutting in to do on the ceiling.

Then, it was time to replace those blinds!


Moving on!

That’s for this week. I’m attacking some of the last “constructiony” parts next, and then we can move on in to the really cool space-parts, like decorations and such! Stay tuned!


A couple of weeks ago I began sharing a new story; it’s not one about a Mars mission update or a science paper result, but one about a renovation project at a new home I just bought. I’m building a new studio, and I want you, the listeners, to see the progress!

In Part 1, I shared the before shots of the studio and walked through the paint choices. Plus, I replaced the light fixture with a new fan equipped with Philips Hue colour smart lights. Today, I’ll share some updates on the trim, the door frame, and the first piece of furniture.

Baseboards and Door Frames

First, we had some cutting in to do on the paint where the darker accent wall meets the white side walls. I love a clean line.

Then it was on to the trim. If you remember last update, this room (and whole house) has some pretty dated-looking finishing. So we tore it out.

Look at this monstrosity. It was not in great shape, either. The wood was really soft and covered in layers of paint.

The plan is to replace all the baseboards, quarter round, and the door frame, which is where we started. A new thing we’re trying is building a really simple plinth the base of the door frame to give it a little bit of interest. It’s just a wider section of the door frame that’s also taller than the baseboard.

To do all of the trim, I got to use my new chop saw. I got a great deal at Home Depot that included the stand for free, which is a big upgrade for me. I’m accustomed to using these on the floor or a makeshift table. I should probably be wearing safety goggles. Do as I say, not as I do.

So then we framed out the door!

If you ever do baseboards, even just a little, I highly recommend getting a nail gun and compressor. It is seriously a game-changer. Nothing is worse than having to hammer all the nails and then get a tapper to set them in. It’s easier, its faster and it makes my life better.

We laid the rest of the baseboard and then started on the quarter round. We had to add this last piece to extend the baseboard from the wall, as the expansion gap that they left on the floor when they installed it was pretty wide.

This photo gives you a good idea of the expansion gap and why we needed the quarter round.

Finishing touches

The next steps involve using filler to putty up the gaps between the baseboards, the wall and themselves. It’s a bit time-consuming and I don’t have great patience for it so my wife usually handles this part (she is really meticulous and detail-oriented). So I don’t have any photos of this step.

But then you get to paint. We used the exact same paint colour as the white walls, but for the trim we used a different finish. The walls are an eggshell, which is very matte, and the trim is a satin. It’s kind of one step up in glossy-ness. We used semi-gloss in our last house and it was a bit too shiny so we’re toning it down this time.

Here’s a look at the finished product with trim, putty and paint done.

Since the trim is lighter, we over-painted it on the accent wall. Then, we tape the trim and paint the straight line back in the Off-Nominal grey.

The end process lets you have this super-satisfying tape removal moment.

More Electrical!

Also included in this update – some more switch and receptacle changes!


Lastly, we added some furniture. My in-laws are visiting this week so we had to rush and do one half of the room just so we could put the bed down. It’s kind of silly looking but I like to call it parallel development.

It’s an IKEA day-bed that converts into a King-sized bed. Super handy for an office that has to double as a spare room. I also hope it will play a big role in dampening sound that might be echoing off the floors and walls for the podcast.

That’s it for this week! Next, we need to finish all the painting and trim (including the closet) and start thinking about installing the desk, which will be a pretty big, built-in system. But I’ll leave you with one more picture. It’s what I’m considering for the new podcasting chair! What do you think?

It kind of reminds me of the chair that the flight director sits in at ESA’s European Spacecraft Operations Centre in Darmstadt, since it’s so tall. Here’s Michel Denis, who was in charge when ExoMars entered orbit around Mars. Like, it’s a tower.

Ad ares, Martians!

This summer has been an incredibly challenging one for me personally. In May, my wife and I made a sudden decision to sell our home and move to a new one. We found a good deal and jumped on it, but it required us to do some serious renovation work on our old place in order to sell it. At the same time, I was promoted at my main job which demanded a lot of my time, and I had a vacation planned in there, too. Needless to say, it caused a lot of disruption in my life, and this has certainly caused some disruption in the podcast’s life, too! So thank you for your patience as I get through it.

The worst of it is behind me now as I sit in my new living room writing this update. The benefit to you, the listener, is that I am finally investing in a new studio at the new place. I’ve decided to chronicle the renovation project that will become Off-Nominal Studio West and share a little bit of meta-content with you, since you’ve all been so gracious in forgiving this long stretch of silence through the summer. I hope the new space-themed office/studio is something really cool and a great place to hang out, so that I am inspired to keep producing great content for all you Martians out there.

We’ve had possession of our place for about a week now, and here’s what I’ve been able to get started!

The “Before”

No good reno project is complete without a look at the room before it is altered. Here’s the room before I made any changes.

The Good

All in all, it has some great bones to work with:

  • Laminate floors in really great shape. Maybe not the best choice for sound recording, but I have some plans for that
  • Size is great, about 110 square feet, or 10.2 square metres (not including the closet)
  • Window provides a lot of light

But it sure has some opportunities, too!

The Bad

Key things I need to fix to make this the space I want include:

  • Paint! The terrible baby blue needs to go
  • The trim is really dated and not in great shape
  • The light fixture is terrible
  • The outlets, switches and receptacles are all original (1999) and have that awful yellow colour and are covered in paint from different renos through the years

Design Goals

My hope for this reno is to accomplish the following:

  1. Create a modern-looking workspace that I enjoy spending time in
  2. Surround myself with awesome space stuff
  3. Optimize the space for sound-recording
  4. Add a little branding to set it up for possible future video productions

So let’s take a look at the first week’s accomplishments!


The trim in this room (and the rest of the house if I’m being honest) is really dated looking. It has this curvy design that reminds me of what was considered a cheap imitation of high class, thirty years ago.

The room also had a lot of really old receptacles, switches and outlets that needed to go.

Once it was all stripped out, it was time to paint!


I’m fortunate to be married to someone who is an amateur interior designer. She helped me find some inspiration images that captured some of the ideas I had. I really wanted a black and white style colour scheme, with an accent wall, something like this image:

As we started to narrow down the colours she had a brain wave. Why not leverage some of the colours of the branding for Off-Nominal? My co-host and podcast partner Anthony from Main Engine Cut Off made this beautiful mission patch/podcast logo for our partner project, Off Nominal, and it seemed a perfect fit for what I was doing. In fact, I decided to brand the whole studio with Off-Nominal to give it some broader scope (but don’t worry, there’ll be lots of Mars accents).

Sherwin Williams makes a really cool colour matching app called ColorSnap which lets you look at images and then it spits out the colour name to take to the paint store. Here’s the app in action on an iPhone:

Since the colour was really dark, we chose a high quality paint that would minimize coats required. If you’re in Canada, you can get it at Canadian Tire and it’s called Premier Infinity. We chose a flat finish to minimize glare (matte is so in right now, or so my wife tells me).

Then we got to work! The paint was delightfully thick and dark, which felt really satisfying dunking a fresh roller in to!

We decided to do just one accent wall (like the inspiration photo) but also added the ceiling. It simulates having real space above me!

The Light Fixture

Next we had to tackle the awful light fixture in the room. This room is three stories up so it gets hot in the summer, so we decided to get a ceiling fan. My wife found a great dark-coloured Windward one that will kind of blend in to the ceiling and create a sort of stealth effect. She likes it ’cause it matches, I like it ’cause it lets me imagine the light is just a star blazing in the galaxy.

Check out this stealth mode!

To make it even better, I installed Philips Hue full colour bulbs inside of it. This will let me alter the colour and make different scenes, fully controllable via apps on my devices or voice command through Google Home. So whether I want a red dwarf or a pulsar above me, I can create the ambiance I want.

That’s it for now! I hope you enjoyed what will probably be a many-part series as I move towards a finished product. Ad ares, Martians!

It’s August, and that means it’s time to get ready for the new school year. Show up on campus in style with a WeMartians design, and help support an independent podcast at the same time! This is the biggest sale we’ve ever put on, so take advantage now by visiting the WeMartians Shop!

Free Shipping on Orders of 2+ Items!

Until September 9th, get free shipping on any order of 2 items or more! Make sure you use code WMBTS to take advantage of this deal. This has the potential to save you $5 or more on your order! Best of all, it’s combinable with all the other deals we have on this month, too!

Featured Sale: Falcon Heavy TWENTYSEVEN Design

A WeMartians best-seller, the TWENTYSEVEN design is on sale, including both the tee (available in mens and womens cuts) and the unisex sweater. Save $2 on the tees and $4 on the sweaters until September 9th. Order both and get free shipping.

Save Big on Clearance Products

We’ve got big plans for new designs in the Fall, so we’re giving one last chance to pick up these two tees at a discounted rate. Explore Gale Crater with CURIOSITY SOON or inspect the whole planet at 30cm resolution with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s CREEPIN‘. Both designs are $4 off, our lowest rate for premium designs.

All Other Premium Designs on Sale

The rest of our designs are on sale, too! Save $2 on the Opportunity Rover EXTRA NOMINAL design, the InSight GOOD VIBES design, or the SpaceX BRB GOING TO MARS design.

Logos, too!

You can also pick up a WeMartians Logo shirt, at their permanent low low price of $14.

April has been an interesting month for me. Super busy and kind of a heads-down approach to get ready for the InSight launch coming up this weekend. Trips like that are only possible because of the support of our patrons on Patreon, so if that’s you – thanks!

We’re pushing forward with our plans to roll out the WeMartians travel grant. It’s an opportunity for the WeMartians community to give back to the STEM community by funding students to travel to conferences. Last month we visited the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this month and have seen first-hand how beneficial it can be. You can read more about our ideas for the grant in our recent explainer post. But to get there, we need your help!

Thanks to all the Patrons who’ve pledged support already, especially our Station-Level and higher donors. We’re already 79% of the way to our goal of $450/month to kick off the WeMartians Travel Grant. This is so close! I would love to see this goal reached by the summer time so that we can get this project moving!

Click here to support WeMartians on Patreon

Patreon Highlights

  • Red Planet Review (4 episodes) – Our new series continued through April with 4 more episodes. Red Planet Review highlights this month are chalk full of spacecraft updates, from ExoMars reaching its final science orbit and returning its first data, to Mars Express software updates and upcoming rover milestones. Plus, Curiosity leaves Vera Rubin Ridge and Opportunity busts out its Rock Abrasion Tool for the first time in around 300 sols. It’s for our Lander-level patrons ($3+/month), but the first episode was published for free if you’d like to try it out!
  • Listener Questions: Episode 40 (Mars One Waning feat. Ryan MacDonald) – Patrons Joost and Bradley helped out our interview with Ryan by submitting questions on the topic ahead of time. In fact, all the Patrons over in the Discord (see below) provided a lot of guidance in helping shape this unique episode (so thanks)!
  • Discord Highlights – Over on the Off-Nominal Discord, our Rover-level ($5+) patrons continued to share in all kinds of great discussions. There has been a lot of excitement over the upcoming InSight launch, and we also had a tremendous discussion about the use of the word “Colonization” when exploring Mars. We hosted a live recording of Off-Nominal 7, and welcomed Tanya Harrison, planetary scientist and our guest for that episode, into the chat. It’s an incredible community you must check out. More on it here.
  • Shop Discounts – Some of our members enjoyed their permanent discounts on the WeMartians Shop by contributing at the Station, Excursion and Base Levels! Perfect for picking up our new Good Vibes Shirt (celebrating the launch of InSight) and our Falcon Heavy Sweater design!

Don’t miss out on these perks! Become a patron today!


Well Martians, we’re down to the final week! NASA’s InSight mission to Mars lifts off early Saturday morning and we’re travelling down to watch the event and cover it for you. Here’s what you can expect over the next week!

Twitter Previews

Beginning today, there’s an extensive Twitter preview of the mission happening over on our feed. Each day until Friday, we’re covering aspects of the mission in a shareable Twitter-thread format.

  • Monday (April 30th) – Why InSight? Science Objectives
  • Tuesday (May 1st) – History of the Mission
  • Wednesday (May 2nd) – The Spacecraft
  • Thursday (May 3rd) – The Science Instruments
  • Friday (May 4th) – The Rocket & the Launch

Pre-Launch Briefing

At 1PM PDT/4PM EDT on May 3rd, NASA will hold a Pre-Launch Briefing that we will be covering over Twitter. The briefing will be live-streamed on NASA TV.

Launch Day

InSight launches at 4:05AM PDT from Vandenberg Air Force Base. We’ll be in Lompoc, California outside the base looking for the best place to view the launch from. It becomes tricky balancing the desire to be close, but the desire to be high enough to avoid the infamous Vandenberg Marine Layer fog, which often blankets the area and can block your view of the rocket.

Once we find a spot we’ll be sure to do some Periscoping on Twitter!

ULA’s Space Launch Complex 3E, where InSight will lift off from on an Atlas V rocket on May 5th.

The Podcast

Episode 41 will cover the story of InSight, from its humble beginnings, through it’s launch. We’re completing research this week, collecting audio on-site, and producing the episode early next week. Look for it in the WeMartians feed as early as Wednesday the 9th of May!

Patreon Perks

If you’re one of our Patreon Supporters, I’m going to be making an attempt to use Patreon’s new Lens feature to provide live video updates through the trip. This will be a nice low-overhead way for me to give you some closer looks at what’s going on.

I’ll be in the Off-Nominal Discord on Thursday for the Pre-Launch Briefing. You’ll also get at least one audio update with some early thoughts on the launch which I hope to get up quickly. I’ve also got some other goodies in store for you.

Get Up To Speed!

If you are behind on the mission, here are some resources to get you started.



Support WeMartians!

Trips like this are not free! Thanks to support from our Patrons, we’re able to travel down to launch events like this and provide on-site coverage. You can join this amazing community by helping out as well.

  • If you love the podcast, consider becoming a Patron! For as little as $1/month you can make more trips like this happen.
  • If you’re more of a casual fan, we also have some great InSight T-Shirts available for purchase!

The InSight Good Vibes premium T-Shirt design from WeMartians.

The InSight Good Vibes premium T-Shirt design from WeMartians.

Periodically, scientific discoveries at Mars prompt new thinking and paradigm shifts in the way we perceive the Red Planet. If these changes are significant enough, it merits an adjustment to our strategy when we explore. One such topic up for discussion is the importance of Mars polar science, or the study of the poles. The Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group discussed this at their committee meeting last week in Crystal City, Virginia.

Side note: we also discussed the MEPAG meeting in our most recent episode of Red Planet Review. It’s a weekly podcast available for our $3+ patrons discussing Mars headlines. Listen to the sample episode here or follow the link below to pledge support!

Support WeMartians on Patreon

Who or what is MEPAG?

MEPAG (or Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group) is a community-led committee that informally advises NASA on scientific goals for the exploration of Mars. The community maintains a goals document, which is a summary of the questions that are high priority for investigations. MEPAG forwards this document to the formal NASA advisory bodies or departments, like the Mars Exploration Program, the Planetary Science Advisory Committee or even the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Really, it’s main goal is to ensure the Planetary Science community has a say in what NASA does next at Mars. Here are the four major components of the current goals document.

  1. Determine if Mars ever supported life
  2. Understand the processes and history of climate on Mars
  3. Understand the origin and evolution of Mars as geological system
  4. Prepare for human exploration

The four primary goals of Mars Exploration, as outlined by MEPAG

What’s prompting a change to these goals?

In late 2016, the Lunar and Planetary Institute (the same body which organizes LPSC) hosted the Sixth International Conference on Mars Polar Science and Exploration in Reykjavik, Iceland. Scientists from different disciplines studying both Earth and Mars joined forces to share current results, outstanding questions, and future priorities. One hundred and two highly engaged attendees from 11 countries participated. It became clear that Mars Polar Science was both very important not well represented in NASA’s current goals and objectives. So, the community sought to change that.

Early in 2017, the community published a report that was a summary of the conference and a presentation of five main scientific questions that the Polar science community wants answers for. This was the first step in instituting change in the scientific direction of NASA’s Mars program.

Why is polar science important?

Planetary scientists sometimes overlook polar science. It’s part geology and part climate, which makes it challenging to study by someone from only one discipline. However, this dual-nature also makes it especially important to study because it has such global reach in the formation of today’s Mars.

Every year, when the poles are in their winter season and fully enveloped in darkness, upwards of 30% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere condenses on the surface, forming metre-thick layers of frost. In the summer, it sublimates back in to the atmosphere and the cycle repeats. That’s a dramatic amount of change for Mars’ atmosphere. With it comes a multitude of planetary wide changes, including cloud formations, dust movement and temperature changes. This movement of CO2 drives the Martian climate.

Each seasonal cycle leaves a layer of dust and debris on the layered deposits of the poles, preserving a record of the past seasons like rings in a tree trunk. The data in the layers of the poles are invaluable in understanding Mars’ past climate. These data can then be correlated with the geologic record to understand and confirm theories on how the planets features were formed. We might think, for example, that a certain feature on Mars could be formed if temperatures were sufficiently high, but have no way to confirm that geologically. Climate studies help geology and vice versa.

From the summary report:

The poles are a record of past climate, and polar processes drive current climate. The poles influence movement of sand in dunes, dust in the atmosphere, isotopic ratios, availability of volatiles, melting point and stability of liquid water – through time.

A view of the North Polar Layer Deposit. Like rings in a tree, these layers tell a story of past climate. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

What’s next?

The committee has taken the report from the Polar Science Conference and incorporated them into a proposal to change MEPAG’s goals document. This is a great step and the final proposal will be available this summer. A public consultation period will be available prior to finalization. But what does this mean for actual Mars exploration?

You won’t see some kind of polar lander dropping down into Chasma Boreale next launch window. These changes take a long time to propagate through the NASA system. Changes to this document may inform next year’s budget requests for NASA that could theoretically have impacts on funding for current or future missions. But chances are it will have little impact there.

Next year, the 9th International Conference on Mars is being held in Pasadena. It’s an important gathering of Mars scientists that often drives changes to MEPAG’s goals document as well. So, expect to see another revision following that meeting. From there, MEPAG will forward the goals document to the Planetary Science Decadal Survey committee, which formally kicks off in 2020. That’s where a major impact can be made. The Decadal Survey is (as its name implies), a once in a decade guiding document formally requested by NASA to inform its planetary science agenda. The current one expires in 2023. If Mars polar science is as important as its community believes, then maybe we’ll see it codified in the Decadal Survey. If it is, then perhaps we’ll see more missions focused on exploring the amazing and beautiful poles of Mars.

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