How an Arctic Island in Canada is Preparing Humans for the First Journey to Mars

How an Arctic Island in Canada is Preparing Humans for the First Journey to Mars

Every summer, dozens of would-be Martians gather in the Arctic to do research that will help take humans to the Red Planet.
March 16, 2017, 9:40pm
LIFE

Every summer for the last twenty years, dozens of would-be Martians have gathered on Devon Island in northern Canada to test some of the cutting-edge technology we'll need when humans finally make the journey to the Red Planet. Located well north of the Arctic Circle, Devon is the world's largest uninhabited island and home to the massive Haughton impact crater that was formed by a mile-wide asteroid nearly 40 million years ago. Between the island's remoteness, the impact crater, and frigid, dry climate, it's about as close to the Martian environment as you're going to get without leaving Earth, which is why it was chosen as the ideal location for the Mars Institute's Haughton-Mars Project Research Station.

"Devon Island had all the basic makings of a good Mars analog," said Pascal Lee, the planetary scientist who started the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) in 1997. "When we went there that first summer, I knew within an hour of landing that it'd be an amazing place to learn how to explore Mars. It was obvious we'd have to come back the next summer."

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According to Lee, at the time he was plotting out the details of this world-class Arctic research station, NASA had no plans at all for sending to humans to Mars—the majority of their budget was focused on getting the International Space Station up and running. But Lee realized that if he wanted to help promote a human journey to Mars in the future, he'd have to help lay the groundwork to convince NASA and others that the trip was worthwhile.

"I knew within an hour of landing that it'd be an amazing place to learn how to explore Mars."

And now, thanks to the rise of private space companies like SpaceX, which wants to get boots on Mars by 2030, a journey to the Red Planet no longer seems like science fiction—indeed, it's made the research done at HMP more relevant than ever.

Each summer, dozens of researchers who hail from universities, NASA and independent organizations like the SETI Institute, begin arriving in the early summer for their stay at the base. Getting to the research station from Ottawa, Canada involves about three days of travel in charter planes. During the winter, the island is accessible by land because the water between it and the Canadian mainland is frozen over, but by summer it's best to fly.

Most researchers only stay for about a week out of the month or two the station stays open per year, although a handful of researchers normally spends the duration of the summer on site. The types of research projects undertaken on the island vary each year, but they are generally divided into two distinct groups: science and exploration. These days, you can expect to find at most 13 researchers on site at any given time, which Lee says reflects the changing priorities of the Mars Institute's mission.

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"We've done enough research on site that at this point we're more interested in looking at how smaller crews explore the terrain, rather than trying to have larger infrastructure on site," Lee said.

Indeed, some of HMP's most successful experiments have been in the vehicular exploration department, such as Lee and his colleagues' 2000-mile overland journey across the Northwest Passage to Devon Island in a modified Humvee that served as an analog to a pressurized vehicle that could be used on long distance Mars trips.

As Lee described the journey, which was the subject of a feature length documentary, Passage to Mars, they were essentially testing out the "motor home approach to Mars exploration." On the Red Planet, if astronauts wanted to go on a long duration trip away from their base, they would ride in a pressurized vehicle, wearing only their shirtsleeves until it was time to leave the vehicle, at which point they would don their spacesuits.

"This wasn't a Mars simulation, we weren't wearing space suits on that trip, we weren't pretending we were on Mars," said Lee. "But even though it wasn't a simulation of a Mars rover trip, we still learned valuable lessons for Mars. Good crew size, good crew hierarchy structure, good decision structure for the team, so even though it wasn't a simulation, it nevertheless taught NASA a lot about how to plan these road trips on Mars."

Passage to Mars crew

The Houghton-Mars Project has also been thinking a lot about the spacesuits that will be worn by the first astronauts to go to the Red Planet, or as Lee likes to call them, "wearable spacecraft." According to Lee, the state-of-the-art spacesuits that have been worn by astronauts on visits to the Moon during Apollo or on spacewalks at the International Space Station today weigh about 300 pounds on Earth. While this isn't a problem in the microgravity of low Earth orbit or on the Moon, where gravity is only a sixth of what it is on Earth, on Mars these spacesuits would still have a felt weight of about 125 pounds—far too heavy for astronauts to lug around while exploring the Martian surface.

"The challenge we face is to create a spacesuit that will weigh half of that mass," said Lee. "Spacesuits are very complex aerospace systems: they have life support systems, computers, multiple layers with different kinds of fabrics to protect the wearer from different things, a pressure bladder, a cooling system. All of that has to have its mass brought down by half and that's a huge challenge."

"If we're going to find living life on Mars, we need to go where it's warm and wet today, and that's underground."

To get around this problem, Lee and his spacesuit engineering colleagues have not only been reinventing the design with lighter materials, but also figuring out how to incorporate spacesuits into a dynamic system with the small, ATV-like rovers that astronauts will be using to explore the Martian surface. If the ATV can hold the bulk of a spacesuit's mass, such as large oxygen tanks or batteries in the suit's backpack, astronauts will only have to connect with these elements as needed, freeing up their movement as they do field work.

"You're no longer just an astronaut in your spacesuit as a single entity," said Lee. "The exploration system is now you plus your ATV."

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According to Lee, thinking about mobility will also be the highlight of this summer's research at the base. In particular, now that they have two modified Humvees on the island to serve as pressurized vehicle simulations, Lee and his colleagues will be engaging in a dual rover traverse to test out a number of different technologies and exploration protocols.

During this mission, the two rovers will leave the Haughton-Mars Project base, and go on a journey out into the island, which is largely unmapped. The first vehicle will carry a crew of three people and will be doing geological science, but also, according to Lee, act as the "vehicle that gets itself into trouble while exploring. The reason for this is to test the capabilities of the second vehicle, which will be serving as a support vehicle and a radio relay for communications from the first vehicle back to base camp. This vehicle will also be carrying a drone operator, which will monitor the two vehicles' progress from the skies.

Although some scientists have argued that the exploration of the solar system should be left to robots, which are not only safer, but far cheaper to send into space, Lee said that in many cases, humans are what are needed for the job, particularly when it comes to searching for life on the Red Planet. According to Lee, the best hope for discovering life on Mars is beneath the surface and for that, robots simply won't cut it.

"If humans go to Mars, it's a huge opportunity for science and particularly the search for life," said Lee. "A big step that humans would enable if they go to Mars is to explore the underground, which is very difficult to do robotically. But if we're going to find living life on Mars, we need to go where it's warm and wet today, and that's underground."

Thanks to the two decades of experiments like these at the HMP, we're able to make sure that we're not only prepared for the greatest adventure ever undertaken by our species and perhaps the greatest scientific discovery of all time, but that we're also continually inspired to make such journeys a reality.

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