To prepare for life on Mars, a group of US researchers is exploring the next best thing — Devon Island, a barren, windswept outpost high in the Canadian Arctic.
Last month, investigators used a simulated martian habitat as a base for exploring the region. The aim is “to learn how to operate on Mars”, explains Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, a private organization funding the project.
So far, $300,000 has been spent, and additional money has been raised to support operations up to the end of next year. A five-year, $1 million research programme is planned to complement a NASA programme begun on Devon Island four years ago.
Things got off to a shaky start in July, when one of five payloads dropped onto the island by parachute crashed to the ground, destroying floor panels for the habitat, a crane and a trailer.
The team recovered by bringing plywood from the nearest town and using pulleys and winches instead of a crane. “When we get to Mars, we'll have to be prepared to improvise,” says Zubrin. “Ultimately, human ingenuity rather than technology will carry us through.”
The six-person habitat, a 7.2-metre-high cylinder with a domed roof, was finished in late July, two weeks behind schedule, allowing for a shortened occupancy period of less than a week. Next summer, researchers will spend two months at the base.
The crew, which included NASA scientists, simulated operations on Mars, spending 20 minutes in an airlock and wearing spacesuits. They used all-terrain vehicles and communicated daily with ‘mission control’ centres in Houston and Denver.