At "Mars on Earth," Planning a Manned Mission

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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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