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Volunteer crews chase their dreams in a desert Mars

NASA says it could be another 20 years before humans touch down on Mars, but in a sense, the Mars Society has been exploring the red planet for more than a decade — in Utah.

The nonprofit society's Mars Desert Research Station, near Hanksville, Utah, has been home to 126 crews since the Mars-style habitat was erected in 2002. The idea behind the experimental station is to test the tools and techniques that could come into play during eventual human expeditions to the real Red Planet. Each expedition crew consists of roughly a half-dozen volunteers who spend about two weeks in the Utah desert, conducting real research on a make-believe Mars.

Utah's desert is one of several locales around the world that are thought to be sufficiently Mars-like to teach researchers about the far more extreme conditions on the cold, dry planet. Other locales for Mars simulations include the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, Norway's Svalbard Peninsula, caves on the Italian island of Sardinia, and even a lab in Russia.

The crew members for such simulations range from NASA researchers to students who hope to walk on Martian soil someday. Another would-be Marsonaut is Reuters photographer Jim Urquhart, who has long yearned to take pictures of the Mars Desert Research Station and its crew. "I had tried for years to go, but my story pitches never made the cut," he said Monday in a blog posting. This month, Urquhart finally got the green light from his editors, in part because "science and space exploration have become sexy again," he said.

Urquhart came away impressed by the volunteer astronauts. "I kept thinking to myself that this group of six embodies so much of what I wish I could become," he said. "They were passionate and chasing their dreams."

Check out these pictures — and Urquhart's blog posting — for more about his visit to Mars in the Utah desert.