Australia’s Mars Mission

3rd Feb 2020

Introducing Australia’s most audacious and technically elegant space mission. The Mars MEDIAN Mission

Did you know that Australia has a Mars Mission and it is well underway. It has progressed from inception in 2012, through desktop design / desktop testing through to testing the gas sensors, impact testing with a gas gun, ballistic testing with rockets, LASER range finding (for landing) and position alignment systems for positioning after landing.

It is a mission that would rank amongst the world’s best science in many ways.

The Mars MEDIAN Mission

The mission is named after the primary experiment proposed by UK astronomer Nick Howes. MEDIAN stands for: MEthane Detection by In-situ Analysis with NanoLanders. It is a mouthful but simply it is the hunt for a Methane vent near the landing site. Notice that the name says that there are several landers! How many? 6 to 8. That’s right. We are planning on landing up to 8 devices on Mars and all without fuel all at the same time.

The Main Experiment

Methane detection. That simple. Land some Methane detectors on Mars. Align them. Map then and have them measure the wind direction waiting for methane to blow across the sensors. When the wind shift the methane will blow across the sensors on other probes.. Triangulate the source of the methane and you have the source of a methane vent. Simple. Now just send a rover over to the vent and sniff the concentrated source of methane for components in the methane that will confirm whether it comes from life or chemical reactions.

The Search for Life

This experiment could possible be the key to proving that is was or is life on Mars. Not bad at all to be involved in a such a worthy endeavour. In fact whole missions could have been given to such an experiment. In fact, this is a secondary mission and it is likely to ride with a lander or rover in the future. The experiment is just one part of the whole concept. Nick Howes had another genius part to this experiment. He found a way to get it to Mars on a free ride. Previously NASA had a competition to see what experiments could ride to Mars to replace the balance mass that is ejected during the entry phase. The competition had ended with nothing of great consequence, but this meant that a free ride was still possible.

NASA Competition
Secongary Mass Ejection Impacts on Mars
Secongary Mass Ejection Impacts on Mars

Nick was left with only one problem how to land his experiments on Mars. He had asked nearly 100 experts and all had said that it was impossible. He was running out of time to have the methane testing included on a Mars Simulation in the Moroccan Desert. He was at Spacefest and heard that there was an Australian that was using balloons to take payloads to the Stratosphere and maybe balloons could be inflated to slow the descent on Mars. His name was Robert Brand…

A Light Bulb Moment

I was at Spacefest, a gathering of astronauts, scientists, artists and anyone interested in Space. I was a guest speaker on Citizen Science and what is possible to get involved in in space. Nick was grabbing at straws at this stage and NO, Balloons would be useless. It would be impossible to inflate a balloon at supersonic speeds to land these probes and the tanks would be impossible to take and dangerous to the main experiment. We would have needed 8 x 30 kg gas bottles anyway!! I said to Nick that I had an idea and to give me an hour.


Impactors! Yes, if you have no option other to hit the ground hard, then simply survive the impact. Mars does have an atmosphere, but it is thin. We can slow the decent a bit, but the impact could still be 180 m/sec or 650 kph (400 mph). It is not about impact speed, but it is all about G Force. That is related to the slowing distance and the speed. suspension systems also have an affect. We are aiming at impacts of around 2,000 Gs or less. these are survivable.

A concept drawing at the time I presented Nick Howes with a landing solution. The flat bit near the top is a solar panel that folds out.

Past Work

Immediately following Spacefest, it was determined that the Mars Impactor was viable and the initial processors began in the UK.

A Mars simulation in Morocco saw the testing of the gas detection system. It was a successful experiment. Note that the MEDIAN Mission is unmanned, The Mars SIM is all about teams on extended stays like they would need to do on Mars. They deploy test experiments and the Methane tests were one set of the experiments.

Morocco SIM Test
Morocco SIM Test 2

Desktop work and simulations formed the basis of a PhD thesis. The university was impressed with the work and the candidate won a major university award for her work. The project then moved to Australia for the next phase of testing.

MEDIAN’s Current Snapshot

There is plenty of material here on the Thunderstruck posts and pages about the project. Youcan read about Impact testing and other future tests.

The current work is:

LASER ranger finding to measure the speed of landing and to drop the parachute 3 seconds before impact to stop it covering the probe.

Gas Gun Testing

Ballistic rocket testing (USA)

Ultrasonic wind detection systems.

ThunderStruck has received a letter of support from NASA, The Mars Society and other organisations.

ADFA Gas Gun Canberra Diagram
Rick Mashek Mars MEDIAN Mission test rocket
Rick Mashek Mars MEDIAN Mission test rocket

MEDIAN’s Future

There is an amazing amount of work to do and much of it will be with universities and space organisations with members willing to work on the project. Some of the future work will include choosing the mechanical release of the parachute and the deployment of the solar inverted umbrella. The choice of secondary experiments . The communications protocols sterilisation techniques, integration and design considerations for NASA, testing.

MEDIAN Summary

MEDIAN is a world class Mars mission that is well progressed. It has support from NASA although it still has to be given an official go ahead. It is an impressive list of “Firsts”

  • First Survivable Impactors to be used
  • A major space mission started from a citizen science project
  • Multiple probes being landed at the same time
  • Triangulation of a gas vent
  • Independent mission working with a space agency rover
  • First Fee Ride to another planet
  • First secondary payload on a Rover or return payload mission
  • First comms network on another planet
  • First Australian experiments on another planet
  • and who knows, the search for life might be successful!
A landed MEDIAN probe
A landed MEDIAN probe