Oracle, AZ

Life on Mars: Arizona startup simulates off-world habitats

Jeff Kronenfeld

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A screenshot from SIMOC.(Over the Sun)

Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Oracle, AZ) The Arizona-based company Over the Sun, LLC, has developed software for simulating off-world habitats, which it continues to improve and find new uses for on Earth.

A Scalable, Interactive Model of an Off-World Community (SIMOC) is software that enables users to design and test a Martian colony -- including choosing life support systems, crew size, what to plant in their greenhouses, and the number of solar panels and batteries.

Data from NASA adds realism to the simulation, though not every digital Martian colonist makes it out alive.

The first-ever interactive kiosk using SIMOC is being installed at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix. The exhibit is slated to open in the near future.

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An exterior shot of SAM.(Kai Staats)

Biosphere 2 and SIMOC

Over the Sun is one of four companies participating in a recently launched startup incubator program at the University of Arizona Center for Innovation at Biosphere 2.

That iconic research facility near Oracle, Arizona, is using SIMOC Live, a new version of the software, at a hermetically sealed habitat called the Space Analog for the Moon and Mars (SAM), which is currently under construction.

Starting early next year, SAM will host a range of experiments on the technological and biological systems needed to sustain human life on other worlds. Teams of up to four crewmembers will live inside the facility for a few days to several weeks. They will use SIMOC to monitor their life support systems and possibly much more.

"Eventually, we will apply a machine learning algorithm to SIMOC such that it can then guide, maybe even manage the life support systems," Over the Sun founder and executive director Kai Staats wrote by email from an astronomy retreat in upstate New York.

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Students of Gretchen Hollingsworth use SIMOC.(Gretchen Hollingsworth)

SIMOC goes live in high school

SIMOC is now available for free through National Geographic Society's online educational resource library and is used in classrooms around the world.

In April, high school students in Georgia tested SIMOC Live in educator Gretchen Hollingsworth's classroom. The students built a physical Mars habitat using cardboard boxes and actual sensors to observe their body's impact on the enclosed environment.

"The students received it well because it's a fun, inquiry-based tool," said Hollingsworth. "We know science is all about exploration and determining the what ifs. SIMOC gives them the opportunity to change the parameters as they see failure or success in their simulations. It's a very engaging tool because it's so versatile."

Hollingsworth has used SIMOC in earth science, life science, physical science, and English classes. She also likes that National Geographic doesn't require identifying information to use SIMOC, protecting student privacy.

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High school students of Gretchen Hollingsworth building a habitat that they can monitor using SIMOC Live.(Gretchen Hollingsworth)

Recent and future upgrades

With the release of SIMOC Phase V earlier this year, users can now create a functioning virtual model of SAM using included presets. A 3D view provides a visual representation of the exterior of their off-world habitat. Other upgrades increased the realism of the plant growth, inhabitant nutrition, and physics.

Soon, SIMOC will be able to model Biosphere 2 itself. Users will be able to rerun the 1991-93 experiment challenged by plunging oxygen levels and then modify the parameters, such as the amount of curing concrete, microbial-rich soil, or volume of each biome, until they achieve a balanced ecosystem that sustains the crew for two full years.

Eventually, SIMOC will add the ability to place habitats on other bodies around the solar system, explore a 3D model of the colony's interior, and even use a digital hand to touch simulated plants.

Over the Sun Founder and Executive Director Kai Staats created the underlying concept for SIMOC for his master's degree but then switched his area of study to machine learning applied to radio astronomy. In 2017, the Interplanetary Initiative at ASU funded Staats and a team of five Capstone students to create a prototype of the program.

To use or learn more about SIMOC, follow this link. Educators seeking lesson plans for using SIMOC in their classrooms can follow this link.

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

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