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Mars mission takes shape in Arctic

A crater on a Canadian island serves as the setting for experiments and experiences that could pave the way for a human mission to Mars.
The tents of the Haughton-Mars Project and the Discovery Channel sprout up on a Marslike landscape in the Canadian Arctic. The rock formation has been dubbed "the Fortress."
The tents of the Haughton-Mars Project and the Discovery Channel sprout up on a Marslike landscape in the Canadian Arctic. The rock formation has been dubbed "the Fortress."
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It may sound like “Survivor” in parkas: Send two teams to an impact crater just a few hundred miles from the North Pole and find out what they learn about their habitat — and about each other. But in this case, the ultimate goal isn’t to win a million dollars: It’s to blaze a trail for the trip to Mars.

This mission is no game show: Since 1997, NASA researchers have traveled annually to the 12-mile-wide (20-kilometer-wide) Haughton Crater, on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, to study what they consider one of the places on Earth most like Mars. The surroundings are much more livable, of course — but some of the hills, canyons and gullies bear an eerie resemblance to features spotted by Mars probes.

There was an extra twist in the summer of 2000: The Mars Society, a Colorado-based nonprofit advocacy group, erected a two-story, 27-foot-wide habitat designed to simulate the kind of facility that could come into play during a human mission to Mars.

During its inaugural season, the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station was a bare-bones affair, with minimal electric power and no indoor plumbing. But in future years, the habitat is designed to become a testbed for the technologies and procedures to be used on Mars.

A human mission to Mars would be impossible without such simulations on Earth, said Robert Zubrin, a rocket scientist who is president of the Mars Society. He compared the Devon Island simulation to a military training exercise.

“It’s an essential drill in which we’re going to learn hundreds of things, some of which we know we’re going to learn and some of which we don’t know we’re going to learn,” Zubrin told

Climax of two-year campaign
For Zubrin, the inauguration of the habitat represented the climax of a two-year campaign. The Mars Society raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to fund the fabrication of the structure at a Colorado fiberglass factory.

Most of the elements were assembled and disassembled during a practice run in June. The pieces were then trucked to California and loaded aboard Marine C-130 transport planes. And on July 5, the planes sent the first shipments down to Devon Island during a series of parachute drops.

The habitat was due to be raised by July 20, but setbacks during the delivery of construction material delayed completion of the structure by about a week.

Zubrin said a team organized by the Mars Society built the habitat, drawing upon scientists as well as local Inuit youths, blue-collar workers and even journalists.

“We used Roman construction techniques, involving teams of people working with bracing timbers on one side coordinating with a block-and-tackle system on the other,” Zubrin said. “It took a lot of muscle, guts, ingenuity and two weeks of 14-hour workdays, but we got the hab up.”

Insights into evolution of Mars
Meanwhile, the NASA-funded research team — headed by principal investigator Pascal Lee of the SETI Institute — took a closer look at the surrounding area’s geology and microbiology. (SETI stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.)

“Our field investigations at Haughton are providing insights into the evolution of Mars, the effects of impacts on Earth, and the possibilities of life in extreme environments,” Lee said in a written statement. “The field work also provides an opportunity to study the feasibility of, and requirements for, possible future robotic and human missions to Mars.”

NASA tested technologies that could be applied on Mars, such as wireless communication gear, next-generation rovers and even a rover-tethered balloon that could provide a bird’s-eye view of the otherworldly terrain.

About 50 researchers worked together on projects in the Arctic’s extreme environment, watching out for polar bears (guard dogs and shotguns are handy just in case) and sending updates to the outside world via wireless Internet connections. In early August, the habitat and the research camp were shut down and the teams headed south. Operations are due to start up again in mid-2001.

Practice for Mars
Some of the habitat’s features — for example, the nonfunctional “landing legs” attached to the outer shell — are strictly for show, meant to fire the imagination of the press and public. But the project afforded real-world opportunities to test some of the human factors that would come into play during a Mars mission:

  • Satellite transmissions between Devon Island and a “Mission Control” station at Johnson Space Center were delayed several minutes to simulate the Earth-Mars communication gaps.
  • Mars Society exercises required the habitat’s crew to pause in a mock “airlock” before venturing outside for extravehicular activities.
  • The habitat’s faux astronauts followed NASA-style checklists as they make traverses around the crater on all-terrain vehicles.

In the future, the habitat could be used to test spacesuits as well as the types of suitports that might be required on Mars to keep toxic dust out of the crew’s living quarters. A greenhouse and rover port might be added to the settlement. Zubrin envisions a whole series of Mars analogs, not only in the Arctic but also in Iceland, Australia and the American Southwest.

Over the years, the Devon Island experiment and its successors would test “a new architecture for a new planet,” Micheels said.

Vision of the future
Marc Cohen, an aerospace design engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, has worked since the 1980s on that new architecture — and the long-range design for a Mars habitat incorporates many of his concepts.

“Our job is to get at least 15 years out in front of the development work at the agency, to do the pick-and-shovel work,” he told

In Cohen’s vision, a foot-thick (30-centimeter-thick) reservoir of water could double as a protective shield for a “safe haven” from radiation storms during the ride to Mars or on the surface. Suitports and gloveboxes would be designed to protect the astronauts from Martian contamination — as well as to protect Martian samples and the planet’s environment from a potential assault by earthly organisms.

Cohen also believes that a Mars operation will require plenty of open space: The Mars base would probably have to get its power from a nuclear reactor built within a crater several kilometers away, he said. And pressurized rovers would have to be designed to shelter a crew of two to four people during journeys lasting a week or more. (The Mars Society is soliciting designs for just such a rover.)

“None of these things is that spectacularly different from what you would do on Earth,” Cohen said, “but when you’re talking about operating in a near-vacuum environment, with the radiation on Mars ... the price tag goes way up.”

The current price tag for a human mission to Mars is thought to be on the order of roughly $50 billion, spread over a decade — and Cohen said there were few areas in which technological advances could make a big difference in the cost.

“The only order-of-magnitude improvements to be made are in the area of ecological life support systems,” he said.

Cohen hopes the Devon Island project will not only test the designs and procedures required for a human mission to Mars, but also help persuade the public that the trip will be worth the effort.

“That’s the whole idea here, which is to build the public case for Mars,” he said.

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in July 2000.