The next-best thing to being on Mars

Feb 26, 2008
The next-best thing to being on Mars
Crewmembers of an earlier mission at the Mars Society Desert Research Station in Utah set out for an exploratory trip on their all-terrain vehicles, wearing simulated space suits. Photo courtesy / The Mars Society

Last week, two MIT students began living, working and communicating with the outside world as if they were on a mission to Mars. Whenever they go outside their small, round habitat where eight people are spending a two-week "mission," they don spacesuits and pass through an airlock. When they send e-mail, it takes 20 minutes before the recipient can see it-the time it takes for radio waves to travel to and from the red planet.

They're not really on Mars, of course-human missions there are not yet even in NASA's long-term schedule and are not expected to take place for at least two decades. So, in order to begin understanding the logistical, mechanical, scientific and psychological issues that a real crew of Mars explorers will someday face, teams have been practicing the details of Mars exploration in several Mars-base simulators in some of Earth's most Mars-like places. The most heavily used simulation is the Mars Society Desert Research Station, near Hanksville, Utah, which was built in 2002 by the Mars Society.

Engineering graduate students Zahra Khan and Phillip Cunio, from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, began their stay at the Utah facility on Sunday, Feb. 17. Cunio is working on a project to develop a "smart" carrier to be used for research fieldwork in remote expeditions such as planetary exploration. The footlocker-sized container and its contents are fitted with radio-frequency ID tags, so that it constantly keeps track of its contents and can alert people if supplies are about to run out or if an item has been misplaced. Running out of supplies is not just an inconvenience-on a faraway planetary surface it could be a life-or-death issue.

Khan's job was concentrating on the logistics of making exploratory trips through the desert to carry out geological and biological research. The team uses all-terrain vehicles to travel around while wearing their simulated spacesuits and then takes soil samples and conducts other tests at various locations. Halfway through the planned two-week mission, Khan cut her stay short when she was unexpectedly called to Amsterdam for a job interview with the European Space Agency.

Although part of the mission's purpose is to find out about practical issues in working in difficult circumstances, the research itself is also very real. They have been looking for organisms that live in the hostile, dry and salty desert environment, both to develop techniques for conducting such biological research and to learn about how organisms survive in these somewhat Mars-like conditions.

Both Khan and Cunio would like to be involved in real Mars missions someday. Khan's research is on entry, descent and landing systems for human missions to Mars. These will require much gentler, more-controlled descents than past missions, such as the Mars rovers that hit the ground at high speed shielded by airbags and then bounced for several minutes before coming to a stop.

Khan says she would like to go to Mars herself, but thinks that with the slow progress of NASA's plans in that direction, "the odds may not be very good. I think it would be a good idea to send younger people," and by the time such missions take place that may leave her out.

"I'm an advocate of one-way trips to Mars," she says, because the logistics of such trips would be far easier without the requirement for all the fuel needed for a return. For a given spacecraft, she says, you could send six people on a two-way mission or 24 people for a one-way trip. "If you're going to go there, you might as well not waste the resources."

Cunio's research studies the design of self-sustaining life-support systems for Mars colonists, as well as for missions to the moon or other destinations. "We're studying the commonalities in life support and environmental control systems," he says, so that planners don't have to start from scratch in planning missions to different places. "We want to minimize the development costs and risks."

Anyone interested in following the progress of the Mars-like mission can observe the team in action by way of a set of web cams that display live images inside and outside the habitat, at www.freemars.org/mdrscam . Detailed daily reports on their activities can be found online at www.marssociety.com/mdrs/fs07/crew67 (click on "daily crew reports").

Cunio is also blogging about his experiences during the mission, mainly as a way of helping to inspire younger students to get interested in space exploration. His blog is at exepsilonmars.blogspot.com. Cunio has made contact with several schools around the United States and Canada, and will participate in real-time question-and-answer sessions with some of the classes during the mission.

Source: MIT, by David Chandler

Explore further: Video gives astronaut's-eye view inside NASA's Orion spacecraft

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mars mission boost welcomed by scientists

Dec 15, 2014

University of Leicester scientists, who are closely involved in the European mission to Mars –ExoMars- have welcomed support from the Government for the project.

Off-world manufacturing is a go with space printer

Dec 20, 2014

On Friday, the BBC reported on a NASA email exchange with a space station which involved astronauts on the International Space Station using their 3-D printer to make a wrench from instructions sent up in ...

Spinning up a dust devil on Mars

Dec 19, 2014

Spinning up a dust devil in the thin air of Mars requires a stronger updraft than is needed to create a similar vortex on Earth, according to research at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

Video: Flying over Becquerel

Dec 19, 2014

This latest release from the camera on ESA's Mars Express is a simulated flight over the Becquerel crater, showing large-scale deposits of sedimentary material.

Recommended for you

SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

Dec 19, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level flare on Dec. 18, 2014, at 4:58 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts ...

Why is Venus so horrible?

Dec 19, 2014

Venus sucks. Seriously, it's the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you ...

Image: Christmas wrapping the Sentinel-3A antenna

Dec 19, 2014

The moment a team of technicians, gowned like hospital surgeons, wraps the Sentinel-3A radar altimeter in multilayer insulation to protect it from the temperature extremes found in Earth orbit.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

holoman
not rated yet Feb 27, 2008
How about just going to Mars.

http://nlspropuls...ars.aspx

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.