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Arctic Offers Training for Mars Mission

Researchers visit a Canadian polar desert that has a rocky terrain and permafrost -- an environment that parallels the Red Planet.

September 17, 2006|Howard Witt | Chicago Tribune

DEVON ISLAND, Nunavut — They call this place "Mars on Earth," and, for at least another generation, this barren, cratered island not far from the North Pole is as close to the Red Planet as any human being is going to get.

The climatic extremes here in the polar desert of Canada's high Arctic resemble what is found in the polar regions of Mars. The geology of the sterile, rocky terrain is similar to that of the Martian surface. Even the water here, most of it perpetually locked in ice beneath the permafrost, closely parallels what scientists think exists on Mars.

Which is why, every summer for the last 10 years, a handful of geologists, astronomers, engineers and NASA researchers have camped atop the frozen arctic ground here, along the rim of the giant 23-million-year-old Haughton asteroid crater, to begin figuring out how astronauts can one day survive on Mars.

Far to the south, in NASA centers in Texas, California, Alabama and elsewhere, the wheels of the space agency's giant bureaucracy have begun slowly turning toward new missions to the moon by 2020 and Mars sometime afterward. The first rockets are being designed, prototypes of possible spacecraft are under construction, and the competition for huge aerospace contracts will soon begin.

But up here, the journey to Mars is well underway.

A group of Canadian scientists has built a robotic greenhouse that grows plants completely on its own -- a prototype for a module that will be essential on Mars so future explorers can produce their own food and oxygen.

Hamilton Sundstrand Corp., manufacturer of NASA's spacesuits, was here testing lighter, more flexible suit designs for astronauts who will need to spend long periods traversing the Martian surface while constantly bending and reaching to collect samples.

NASA geologists and engineers recently finished proving out an automated drill that can change bits, alter speed and adjust direction without any human oversight, an invention that will help in the search for frozen water deep beneath Mars' surface.

A medical team from the Johnson Space Center in Houston simulated the rescue of an astronaut injured during a Mars foray, including a mountaineering-style recovery by other astronauts as Mission Control looked over their shoulders via body sensors and helmet-mounted cameras.

And a psychologist from France was busy observing all the researchers, collecting data on the adverse mental effects on a small group subjected to prolonged isolation in a harsh environment -- something NASA needs to understand before it lofts a crew to Mars on a mission that could last as long as three years.

"A human mission to Mars might be 30 years away or more, but one day it will happen," said Pascal Lee, 43, a NASA astronomer who first visited this forbidding place a decade ago and supervises the NASA Haughton-Mars Project, as the program is known. "The fundamental lessons we are learning here need to be learned now. On the moon and Mars, it's going to be all about field work, geology, reconnaissance, resource assessment, traversing vast tracts of territory -- all of this stuff we do on a daily basis here."

For most of the year, the population of this desolate island the size of West Virginia consists of polar bears, a few caribou and the occasional eider duck. The closest human settlement lies some 200 miles to the northeast across the frigid Jones Sound, in the tiny Inuit hamlet of Grise Fiord.

But for a brief six-week field season from July through early August each year, Lee is joined by about 40 other scientists who sleep in tents staked into the jagged ground and work and eat inside sheds made of plywood and canvas.

There are other occasional visitors. Tight-lipped geologists from the De Beers diamond company were quietly scouting the island this summer in search of likely spots to mine for the precious gems. And amateur Mars enthusiasts from a group called the Mars Society run a kind of extraterrestrial summer camp some years, hosting tourists who live aboard a simulated Mars capsule they've built here. The visitors dress in mock spacesuits and go out on pretend exploratory missions.

There's no pretending in Lee's camp, however: Everything is very real, and very uncomfortable. When it rains or snows, as it does occasionally, the researchers get wet; when it freezes -- summertime temperatures normally range from 30 to 50 degrees -- they shiver. The sun shines 24 hours a day through the dangerous northern hole in the ozone layer, requiring constant protection from its damaging radiation. In order not to pollute the pristine environment, every scrap of trash and all human waste is collected in bags and barrels and either burned or flown out for disposal. A hot shower means standing naked in the cold and dumping a bag of heated water over your head

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