Dean Little Wants to Help You Navigate the Red Planet
published during a waxing gibbous moon.
01/10/2017

It is a beautiful summer day. The dust storm that covered everything in sight for days has finally subsided, and the sun is out. The perfect day, you decide, for the expedition you’ve been planning ever since you came to Mars, over a month ago: a visit to Tyrrhenus Mons, one of the planet’s oldest volcanoes, and one of only a handful in the Southern Hemisphere. It should be a hop, skip and a jump from Mars Base One, your home away from home, perched on the northeastern edge of a 2,000km-wide meteor crater called Hellas Planitia—but which you and your fellow New Martians simply call Hellas.

Armed with a digital map, you load the necessary gear into your rover, including plastic jugs of precious water and camera equipment. In the driver’s seat, you plot your route. Unlike on Earth, however, you can’t plug your destination into Google Maps. Since the Mars settlement program is still in its relative infancy, the planet lacks a global positioning system, one that would be supported by satellites in orbit. Thankfully, fifty years before your day trip to Tyrrhenus Mons, an Australian designer named Dean Little came up with another means of finding your way around Mars.

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Rocky, uneven terrain in Mars’ northern equatorial region. This image was taken during NASA’s 1997 Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997. Credit: NASA/JPL

“A global positioning system for Mars would cost billions of dollars if done the traditional national government way. That doesn’t make sense on a planet that will remain less than 1% inhabited for the near future,” Dean tells me as we Skype between my apartment in New York and his in Hong Kong. Instead, Dean has designed a local positioning system, built around the idea of dropping nodes on the Martian surface every so often—the technological equivalent of leaving breadcrumbs on the trail.

The benefits of an LPS are in Dean’s eyes manifold. “You could turn each node into a weather station that could register drops in air pressure, indicating a dust storm while it’s still miles away. Plant enough of them, and you have a network that collects positioning data in real time. You can also geotag pictures and soil samples, and communicate with robots and fellow humans, all from an inexpensive, solar-powered WiFi module. It even has a USB charger!”

When Dean proposed the idea of a Martian LPS at the first annual Mars City Design Competition held earlier this year, it was a hit—winning him first prize in the Innovation category, which seems a feat, given that it was awarded at a competition seemingly entirely devoted to innovation.

The Mars City Design Competition, it turns out, does not evaluate entries solely based on how cutting-edge they are. The brainchild of Vera Mulyani, a self-proclaimed “Marschitect” born in Indonesia and schooled in France, Mars City Design is an LA-based innovation incubator for building sustainable cities on Mars that prizes practicality as much as it does imagination. Designs are evaluated according to the feasibility of their construction as well as their usability on Earth. During the competition, designers attend workshops in attracting venture capital and in identifying Earth scenarios that could benefit from their creations.

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A three-frame composite of colored rocks on lower Mount Sharp, located in Mars’ Eastern Hemisphere near the equator. Photo taken by NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Nov 10, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The allure of designing for Mars combines the thrill of technological innovation with the old-fashioned romance of pioneer living.

The Local Positioning System, for example, could aid disaster relief. “Imagine there’s a hurricane on a Caribbean island,” Dean offers, “and all of a sudden they have no telecommunications networks or access to the Internet. An LPS would provide an instant local ad-hoc network, enabling local communication so that you can coordinate people and resources. It could even triangulate the WiFi signal of a smartphone to assist in search and rescue, especially when people are buried under rubble. Access to telecommunications greatly improves your chances of surviving in an emergency.” The idea of using Mars-ready designs for critical situations on Earth is a fertile one, covering not only communication systems but food supply and dwelling concepts as well.

The idea of using Mars-ready designs for critical situations on Earth is a fertile one, covering not only communication systems but food supply and dwelling concepts as well.

It is not difficult to get caught up in the wow factor of designing life on other planets. Today when we are reminded that the golden age of exploring has long passed, the allure of designing for Mars combines the thrill of technological innovation with the old-fashioned romance of pioneer living. Often inspired by the bold statements of Elon Musk, who sees his SpaceX company as the gateway enterprise to colonizing Mars, the new generation of Mars designers like Dean is thinking small so they can dream big: developing low-tech, high-concept living solutions for Mars to complement Musk’s massive spacecraft creations.

“We’re in a space renaissance. Things are happening,” says Dean. “Because of Elon Musk, people are saying, let’s push the frontier out again. They’re daring to dream.”

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SpaceX Dragon Capsule on Mars. Credit: Kevin M. Gill

Sometimes these design efforts are so specific, however, that one wonders if they don’t put the cart before the horse—focusing on design minutiae before the major hurdles of a manned Mars mission are anywhere close to being realized. Dean sees the matter the other way around. Build low-tech solutions to such problems now, and you help justify the feasibility of the entire mission.

“Right now, the only true barriers to reaching Mars are financial and political,” Dean declares. “Politicians are inherently risk-averse. After all, their career depends upon it. That’s why we shouldn’t wait to develop this stuff. Creating the tools we will need to live on Mars now rather than later not only reduces the financial barrier, it also creates a strong political forcing function—it’s the best thing we can currently do to champion human exploration of the red planet.”

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Credit: D Mitriy

At the moment, it is 10:00 AM Airy Mean Time…

Just imagine for a second –

You’re about to press the “gas” pedal on your nuclear-powered rover and speed off towards the volcano when you realize you’ve forgotten something—you haven’t told your partner Kim when you’ll be coming home. As a young couple on Earth, you were quite attached to one another, and this intimacy has only been amplified by the dangers and austere living conditions of Mars. Kim will most certainly be worried about you if you don’t check in with your plans.

Fortunately, thanks to another innovation by Dean, you both know what time it is.

At the moment, it is 10:00 AM Airy Mean Time—referring to the Airy-0 crater, the basis for the Martian Prime Meridian, the site of zero degrees longitude. Since Mars Base One and Tyrrhenus Mons both lie to the west, in the Central Oxian Time zone, your time is currently 9:00 AM. You radio Kim, currently en route to the Hellas Basin to take glacier samples, to say you’ll be back by five.

In 2016, there is no official time zone system for Mars, so Dean has taken it upon himself to propose one, called the Ares Time Zone System, which follows the Martian Prime Meridian and subdivides the planet into 24 one-hour zones set 15 degrees apart. This is basically how we’ve divided up Earth—the International Date Line and a few additional oddball time zones notwithstanding. The Ares Time Zone nomenclature is based on eight spatial quadrangles carved out of Mars’ northern equatorial region by the United States Geological Survey, creating eight major zones, each of which is then subdivided into Eastern, Western and Central time zones: Amazonian, Tharsic, Lunar, Oxian, Arabian, Syrtic, Amenthean, and Elysian.

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A physical Mars Clock prototype on Dean Little’s workbench. Low-tech, high-concept design solutions like the Mars Clock are contributing to the future colonization of Mars one step at a time. Credit: Ares Astronautics

It is a curious feature of humankind that we are so predisposed to our own ancient past that when it comes to exploring the cosmos, we love to repurpose names from previous civilizations—Greek, Roman, Turkic, and more. To label a section of a strange planet Elysian or Arabian is the first step to colonizing it—making it more familiar, more hospitable.

Design solutions like those underway at Ares Astronautics, Dean’s own Mars design group, will also help colonize Mars from afar—his soon-to-launch Mars Clock app, for example, tells you the time on Mars in any time zone. It also allows you to set a countdown, alarm or stopwatch in Mars time. The ability to seamlessly coordinate events in both Earth and Mars time without having to resort to astrophysics makes it a breeze to sync up scientific or personal projects between the two planets.

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A mockup of the Mars Clock app, designed by Dean Little. Credit: Ares Astronautics

A physical clock is also in the works. I ask Dean what he thinks about when he looks at his physical Mars Clock model and sees what time it is on Mars. “Honestly,” he replies drily, “it enables me to justify my poor sleeping patterns. When my chronic insomnia kicks in at 4 am, it’s oddly comforting to be able to look over at it and think: ah, that’s alright, it’s only 8 pm on Mars.” He pauses for a moment before adding, a bit more somberly, “I guess it’s also a reminder to be mindful of our position in the universe and the future we are capable of building for our species, and that regular people like you or I are able to contribute to that.”

See the Mars Clock here: