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At "Mars on Earth," Planning a Manned Mission

Sam Burbank and Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic On Assignment
December 9, 2003
 
To scientists, Canada's rocky, windblown Devon Island, 10 degrees above the Arctic Circle with an average temperature of 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 degrees Celsius), is "Mars on Earth."

What better place, then, to serve as NASA's lab for a possible manned mission to the Red Planet? Devon Island even boasts the Mars-like 14-mile-wide (23-kilometer-wide) Haughton crater, for which the NASA Haughton-Mars Project was named.


"Within 10 to 15 years of a go-ahead, we could send a manned mission to Mars," said Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who launched Haughton-Mars in 1997. "It's a political decision."

Lee has led seven summer and two winter expeditions to Devon Island for 15 to 30 researchers at a time. There geologists, microbiologists and all manner of technologists audition the tools to survive in the profoundly less hospitable climate of Mars—where the average temperature is -81 degrees Fahrenheit (-63 degrees Celsius), the atmosphere is a poisonous 95 percent carbon dioxide and UV levels are 800 times higher than Earth's.

This year two technologies in the test phase are a NASA Mars-suit prototype and a solar- and wind-powered greenhouse.

NASA had a lot of interest in a manned Mars mission in 1997 and 1998 and that provided the impetus to build a mock-up Martian space suit, said Ed Hodgson, who leads research on future space suits and technology at Hamilton Sundstrand in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Hamilton has been NASA's contractor for life-support systems and space suits for more than 30 years, since Apollo days.

Martian Spacesuits

"The suit needs to be a mini spaceship and reproduce Earth's environment, the temperature, the pressure, and the atmosphere," said Addy Overbeeke, a suit engineer at Hamilton Sundstrand.

The logistics of tailoring a Mars suit are commensurate with the challenge of the mission. Because the trip to Mars is so long (6 to 9 months if chemical propellants are used), explorers would stay on the planet for at least a year, using the same suits day after day.

The suits must be rugged, reliable, repairable, lightweight and comfortable enough to wear for up to six hours while hiking the terrain. By contrast, current shuttle or space station suits weigh about 300 pounds (136 kilograms) and are designed primarily for upper-body movement.

By all accounts, the current Mars prototype is bulky, uncomfortable and claustrophobia-inducing.

Communications among suited-up explorers is also a problem. Just bending down behind a rock can disrupt a signal without a clear line of sight.

Devon Island is the proving ground. Scientists don the suits and go out to do research projects while engineers follow them around, taking notes.

All life's necessities are a concern in so hostile an environment. At some point, a self-sustaining Mars station is more efficient than hauling supplies from Earth. What will explorers eat?

A Martian "farm" may be the answer. Alain Berinstain, a chemist and acting director of planetary exploration and space astronomy at the Canadian Space Agency, Saint-Hubert, Quebec, is leading the effort to develop a Mars greenhouse.

Green Thumb on a Red Planet

The Devon Island greenhouse, remote-controlled and autonomous, is programmed to germinate lettuce seeds in June 2004.

The wind and sun charge a bank of greenhouse batteries that, during the summer, generate enough power to operate pumps that deliver nutrient-laden water to lettuce plants. Sensors monitor temperature, humidity, power, light levels and the water's nutrient content to ensure optimum growing conditions.

By July, when research teams arrive, if the greenhouse works correctly over the long, cold, dark winter, "Our first meal might be a large salad," Berinstain said.

Mars and Earth both have a roughly 24-hour day, which means that plants tuned to Earth's 12-hour cycles of light and dark could grow. The Martian atmosphere, while toxic to humans, may simply need to be pressurized to make it palatable to plants.

The Martian atmosphere is thin but not too thin to support flight. At Devon the researchers are testing a "Thinking Mars Airplane"—a winged scout to map terrain. Like the greenhouse, the unmanned Mars plane thinks for itself. It collects data and takes photographs—then flies back to base camp where a human takes control to help with the landing.

A Mars rover is also in development—basically a converted Humvee with tank treads. The vehicle can double as a shelter when far from base. "It's the mobile home approach to Mars exploration," Lee said.

One day last summer, the prototype rover slid down some rocks. To extricate it, engineers had to dig out snow and mud under a bent tank tread. Practice there may make perfect for when the vehicle is tens of millions of miles from home.



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