Inspiring Arduino: prototyping for planetary exploration at LTU’s INSPIRE Lab

At the INSPIRE (INstrumentation for Space and Planetary Investigation, Resources and Exploration) Lab the LTU staff, PhD candidates, and Master students can do something extraordinary: explore unknown planetary environments in secured conditions with the adequate technology. How is that possible? Thanks to an open-source, robust and powerful hardware and software technology: Arduino.

An arduino board working at INSPIRE Lab.

Arduino is much more than an efficient and adaptable technology. It fits-in perfectly with the scientific methodology that we use in our projects. It all starts with the most important step: choosing a fundamental scientific question, deciding what variables should be monitored, and then preparing a demonstration with an early prototype. So, the prototype design is taylor-made in response to a scientific challenge, not the other way around. The full process is real fun! and even at its early stages we are able to face the core of the scientific question with creativity.
Once the analysis, implementation and testing phases are over, then the validation starts: the limits of operability and the artefacts are chased, and the scientific problems and hypothesis are re-evaluated with the new observations. All this process helps to update the instrument accordingly in a new and more precise “experimental design loop”.
This is a very interesting approach, not only from the research point of view, but also from a learning and educative point of view because the use of Arduino technology allows the use of the scientific method –stablishing a hypothesis, testing experimentally, analysing and getting to conclusions to verify or refute the starting hypothesis and take another step. This hardware supports our mandate in a very easy, practical and intuitive way. Arduino is not only used by professional researchers but also by science fans, makers or students.
Space exploration is a hard “business”. The space technology should face extremely unfavourable environments where science and technology are tested in depth. Space operation imposes low mass, volume and power limitations and, in addition, it requires to be able to withstand extreme temperature and radiation conditions. It is here where we are rising the ambition of applications of Arduino boards (Arduino Nano, Arduino Mega 2560, Arduino Uno and Arduino Pro Min). The INSPIRE Lab has been sponsored by Arduino to test some boards in our prototypes and to use them for our educating activities. This collaboration has been shown to be very successful and, in only one year, four of our prototypes have arrived very faraway in terms of discoveries but also in geographical terms, reaching Earth depths as low as 1.1 km and stratospheric heights of 30 km! In particular, in our laboratory tests we have been able to operate Arduinos at -40°C for two days, and also to operate them outdoors in the Arctic environment.
You can see some of the vast options that Arduino gives you as a scientific research tool with these four examples of prototyping corresponding to the projects Metabolt, PACKMAN, LEMS smart city environmental stations, Perpetual environmental station, water farm, and PVT-GAMERS. A brief description of some of them is given below.

Metabolt: a microcosmos experiment.

Could it be possible to simulate a natural environment with microorganisms to investigate their metabolic activity? What kind of traces or clues could they produce while they are active? How could they be measured and represented? We start with these science questions. How do we solve them? Here is where Arduino help us to design the main variables and prototype them. And we do this with Metabolt, an instrument to investigate metabolic activity of microorganisms in soil from electrochemical and gaseous bio signatures. In this case the prototype uses Arduino Mega 2560 Rev 3 (housed in E-Box) to manage central commanding and processing, and data management protocols. The environmental and electrochemical sensors are programmed to communicate with the ATmega328 processor sequentially via a common I2C bus while the gas sensors communicate directly with Arduino by TX/RX TTL serial communication via the three external TX/RX pins and two software serial ports. We have tested the prototype at the INSPIRE Laboratory ( 23 C) in Sweden and at the 1,1 kilometer deep Boulby potash mine (30 C to 40 C) in UK. For outdoors or field site applications, Arduino is powered by a 4 x 1.5 V AA battery pack serially connected as a 6 V equivalent power supply.
With this amazing tool, we are able to investigate metabolic activity of microorganisms in soil samples, and this could be also done in your backyard garden, in the Arctic regions or in Mars!

Metabolt instrument with two containers, for different experiments, electronic box and connection to a laptop to archive data and monitoring in real time, at the INSPIRE laboratory and the instrument MINAR 5 field test campaign, Boulby potash mine, UK

PACKMAN (PArticle Counter K-index Magnetic Annomaly): our glance to space weather.

Do you remember the legendary video-game with similar name of this project? In that game the funny yellow ball ate and ate small invaders. Our Arduino tool is also a hungry eater, but it eats instead other kind of “things” such as space radiation, muons, electrons, protons etc… Swallowing a continuous shower of charged particles that is received and “eaten” by the instrument. This unit allows to monitor and understand the interaction of space weather with the meteorology of our planet, and its relationship with solar activity. In addition to gamma, beta and alpha radiation it monitors pressure, temperature, relative humidity, and magnetic perturbations (with three fluxgate magnetometers in three perpendicular axes). It also includes data archiving, GPS and communication capabilities, because science is interesting per-se but it also has to be shared and communicated in order to be useful for other researchers and for the society.
As in the mythical PAC-MAN videogame, PACKMAN has several versions: PACKMAN-G, for ground based measurements and PACKMAN-B, for stratospheric measurements aboard balloons. Three versions of PACKMAN-G have been developed and deployed at Space campus Luleå University of Technology, Kiruna, Sweden (67.84°N, 20.41°E, 390 m), Underneath in the Boulby Mine, Cleaveland, United Kingdom (54.56°N, 0.82°W, 93 m and -1.1 km) and in the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom (55.94°N, 3.19°W, 98 m) and PACKMAN-B has been flown in two stratospheric balloons from Cordoba, Spain with Zero2Infinity (37.84°N, 4.84°W, 90 m to 27 km) and from Esrange Space Center, Kiruna, Sweden (67.88°N, 21.12°E, 328 m to 27 km) in collaboration with the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC). All the PACKMAN modules are made with Arduino Nano and other open source hardware. So, as you can see, with Arduino we have been able to travel from the very deep subsurface of earth to the stratosphere, “eating” all what comes from space and giving us a glance at the deep space and solar activity.

a) PACKMAN-G operated in Luleå, Sweden b) PACKMAN-G being operated down in the Boulby Mine, UK, 1.1km below the ground. c) PACKMAN-B before the balloon launch in Cordoba Airport, Spain

Self-Sustainable Station for Monitoring Extreme Environments (S3ME2): an endurance champion

S3ME2 operating amidst heavy snow deposition in the
sub-Arctic region in the campus of the Luleå
University of Technology.
Credit: Thasshwin Mathanlal

The scientific challenge was to operate in one of the hardest environmental conditions and, make things even worse by asking the instrument to be self-sustainable, to maintain itself and regenerate alone, and come back to life after total power-death. Could we do this using a very inexpensive and sustainable solution? This is S3ME2, designed as a low-cost instrument but still durable station, that can be deployed in extreme environments, from cold arid sub-arctic regions to hot deserts, and high-altitude mountain terrains. And once again Arduino is the key point to give answer to all these requirements. Yet more difficult! It uses various models of Arduino such as Arduino Nano, Arduino Mega 2560, Arduino Uno and Arduino Pro Mini to build a resistant and versatile weather station. The generated data can be used by a wide domain of researchers from climatology, geology, glaciology, lithology, meteorology, seismology, planetary habitability and more, much more.
The endurance of S3ME2 is now being tested in the near-arctic winter in Luleå University of Technology, Sweden since November 2017 before its installation in Iceland. It is performing great (down to temperature of around – 28 °C) and it has successfully withstood the winter. The image of S3ME2 amidst snow is shown below:

The water Farm project: moisture farming as in the Tatooine planet of Starwars

We are all aware that water is a basic ingredient for life. But could we dare to imagine what is almost magical? To produce water from an environment with no water. This is the challenge of the Water Farm project, faced thanks again to Arduino. An Arduino Uno is used as a microcontroller to control the temperature of the heater sensing it by PT1000. This temperature sensor takes 5 V from the Arduino and the output is fed through the ADC pins which can be read on the computer screen. Also, the relay is connected between the power source and the load and the input is taken from Arduino and acts as a switching controller for the heating element. With all this, it is possible to reproduce a complete water cycle supported by deliquescent salts: salts absorb atmospheric moisture from the atmosphere forming a brine, the water from the brine is purified with heat from sun or with a thermal heating resistor. Once evaporated it condenses on the inclined roof and is collected on the sides.
The water farm is a prototype that works on the concept of capturing water from the atmosphere in a Mars-analogue dry and cold environment using a special kind of salts, following the concept of the ExoMars instrument HABIT (Habitability: Brines, Irradiance and Temperature).

PVT-GAMERS or the scale for the new spacecrafts generation

How do you weight the remaining propellant of your vehicle in the absence of gravity? Today space transport is living a complete revolution. Rockets can be reused, private companies count on ambitious plans for outer Earth exploration, and one of the most critical challenges has to do with the propellant used in the spacecrafts. That is critical mainly because of economic reasons. Finding better and more effective ways to manage the propellant consumption for electric propulsion, especially in the case of the new kind of pressurized propellants, such as Xenon, is the science challenge that PVT-Gamers address.
With the aim of solving this pressing need, the ‘Improved Pressure-Volume-Temperature Gauging Method for Electric-Propulsion Systems’ experiment was proposed and selected by the European Space agency to fly on-board the Airbus A310 ZERO-G in the framework of the Fly Your Thesis! 2018 program. The new method will be applied to small pressurized Xenon gas containers under hyper/micro-gravity cycles at a stationary cooling, and again the use of Arduino, specifically 6 ARDUINO Mega 2560, is fundamental to recover all the data such as temperature, pressure, deformation or acceleration. In this way, it will be possible to reproduce on-orbit, thrust phase, external accelerations and fuel transfer conditions over a propellant tank at its End Of Life (EOL) stage, where there is almost no propellant left.
The PVT-GAMERS experiment will allow us to test and validate the retrieval method and increase its Technology Readiness Level (TRL) from 4 to 6, which would allow the generation of a potentially useful and easily implementing tool for current propellant management techniques. This could provide the upcoming spacecraft generation with a practical and higher accurate propellant mass gauging method which could constitute a turning point for long-term space missions. This can be applied to CubeSats or telecommunication satellites, and also to large future projects using electric propulsion such as the Deep Space Gateway space station or BepiColombo.

Current design of the PVT-GAMERS experiment rack configuration to be attached to the A310 ZERO-G cabin, (photo credit: PVT-GAMERS), Simulation of the velocity distribution in magnitude within a spacecraft propellant tank as consequence of external heating (photo credit: PVT-GAMERS), and A310 ZERO-G cabin during a micro-gravity stage (hoto credit: ESA).

LEMS Smart City Environmental Station, Our environmental alerts

LEMS Air quality sampling module.
Credit: Miracle Israel Nazarious

“Smart City” or “Clever City” are concepts that modern urban policies are trying to implement to prevent, through the use of technology, serious environmental problems and also to keep track of information to provide a better and more efficient management of cities. LEMS is a good pioneering example of this.
LEMS is a new concept of environmental station to monitor emissions from vehicles and industries in the city of Luleå. The observations of these stations will provide a glance at pollutants in the environment, snow and rain, which in the long run can affect snow albedo and precipitation, ultimately affecting the local climate and hydrology.
The novelty of this system relies on the periodical sampling of the air and the measurement of the precipitations’ pH. The station, gets data of the amount of emissions and the allocation of their main sources, and also provides a direct estimation of the consequences of these emissions in the environment. Through this information one can then propose the best way of palliating the related damage. The added value, is to get the information in real-time to prevent as fast as possible.
Every LEMS will have a complete set of air quality monitoring sensors set (e.g., carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, Sulphur dioxide, ozone, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds) with an environmental sensor package of temperature, relative humidity and pressure sensors coupled with a precipitation pH monitoring system to measure the emissions in air along with the pH of precipitation (both rain and snow). All the data from the LEMS nodes shall be stored in a computer cloud. And again, this amazing environmental alert is possible thanks to Arduino Nano microcontrollers and the environmental sensors used for data acquisition.