DEVON ISLAND, Canada — NASA doesn't plan to launch humans to Mars anytime soon, so Pascal Lee decided to drive.
First came miles of seemingly endless ridges of ice and expanses of grayish-yellow rock. Then yawning canyons and, in the distance, the rim of a massive meteor crater. Through the frosted windshield, Lee scanned the terrain for the myriad dangers of this alien landscape: snowdrifts capable of swallowing his Humvee, a precariously thin skin of ice on the frozen ocean and really hungry polar bears.
It's not quite Mars, but for aficionados of the Red Planet, it's the next best thing. It's Canada.
More precisely, it's Devon Island, the world's largest uninhabited land mass and a place so desolate even the hardy Inuit forsake it. For Lee, a Mars expert at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., it was love at first sight when he first saw the island's unearthly landscape in 1997.
"This is Mars on Earth," Lee said.
Each summer, two teams of explorers and scientists who want to go to Mars settle instead for this frozen patch of real estate south of the North Pole. Here, they mimic, as best they can, the harsh and isolated conditions of a scientific base camp struggling to establish itself on an alien planet.
One camp, a set of small and large tents, rises out of a dusty plateau within sight of the 12 1/2-mile-wide crater that ravaged the center of the island. The second homestead, a two-story, cylindrical metal living module, sits at the crater rim. Cold wind often whips the sites; yellow-brown dust covers visitors and their gear as soon as they arrive. There are no reminders that a civilized world lies to the south. On the horizon are huge rock blocks ejected from the crater 23 million years ago and snow patches that don't melt even in the heart of summer.
"Mars analogs," as Devon and places like it are called, have become all the rage among planetary scientists. NASA scientists use extreme locations around the globe -- the volcanoes of Antarctica, Norway's Svalbard islands and the Mohave Desert -- to test rovers, crawling robots and other technology against the same cold, dry bleakness they expect to find on Mars.
"We want to test things in the harshest possible environment on Earth to see how they behave," said Scott Anderson, a University of Hawaii geophysicist who braved temperatures of 4 below zero atop the glaciers of Svalbard to work the kinks out of a Jet Propulsion Laboratory "cryoscout" drill that could one day bore into Mars' northern ice cap.
Here on Devon, about 60 scientists, Mars buffs and local Inuit guides test the merits of spacesuits wired with internal computers and vehicles they can use for multi-night sojourns away from camp. They also test their own ability to forgo bathing, and be surrounded by unbathed colleagues who often turn surly as soap and hot water become memories.
"A geek element is almost required," said Lee, who heads the project and has turned away hundreds of volunteers hoping to live on "Mars."
Lee's camp opened July 4 when two charter planes dropped 11 people -- geologists, biologists, computer experts and the camp cook -- onto the island. Two dozen more will join them for shorter research stints until the camp closes the first week of August, when the weather will once again turn wintry.
This is a high-tech science lab with a hefty dose of macho summer camp. Some crew members spend their days in lab tents culturing bacterial samples or building electronic sensors. Others send remote-controlled airplanes soaring into blue skies or roar off on all-terrain vehicles to explore distant valleys. The rifles slung over their backs are protection against the massive white bears, the only other large mammals on the island.
With no human Mars mission planned by NASA, some see the idea of living on a faux-Mars as slightly half-baked, or at least far, far ahead of its time. They believe a more prudent approach would be to wait for a spaceship that could make the journey, or perhaps some money to pay for it. Then, the testing of remote computer networks, spacesuits and such refinements as environment-friendly toilets or mood-enhancing interior designs might make more sense.
"It's kind of putting the cart before the horse," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, a Pasadena-based group that advocates a human mission to Mars.
But stalwarts of Mars exploration believe the camps on Devon are a necessary first step in laying the groundwork and encouraging NASA to speed plans for sending humans to the Red Planet.
Researchers here are committed to their quest, no matter how many frozen dinners they have to eat, how many barrels of urine they have to haul back to civilization or how much snow collects on their tents as they shiver through frigid Arctic summer nights.
"I was freezing," admitted University of Calgary geophysicist Robert Stewart, who spent several weeks at the base last summer. "And I'm Canadian."
Red Planet Stand-In