Sunday, October 28, 2007

Mars Analog Environments

The Mars Analogue Research Station (MARS) Programme is an international effort spearheaded by The Mars Society to establish a network of prototype research centres where scientists and engineers can live and work as if they were on Mars, to develop the protocols and procedures that will be required for human operations on Mars, and to test equipment that may be carried and used by human mission to the Red Planet. Currently, two of these units have been constructed, one in the Canadian High Arctic (FMARS) and a second one in the high desert plateau of Utah (MDRS). Two more are planned, one in Europe (Iceland) and the other in Australia.

The primary goal of the MARS programme is to research the operational environment of a base on Mars. As such, the programme is specifically geared towards answering a wide range of key questions about living and working on Mars, including:

  • What is the ideal number of crew and their composition for an exploratory team on Mars - four people, six people, more?
  • How well do support systems and equipment function “in the field”?
  • What are the best designs for EVA suits?
  • How easy is it to maintain equipment in isolated conditions?
  • How are group dynamics going to operate in such a closed environment?

In order to achieve these goals, operations at the Habitat Units are performed under "Mars simulation" conditions. This means that once a crew is in a unit, barring a serious medical event or emergency, they live and work as astronauts would on Mars:

  • They cannot leave the unit without donning a simulated space suit
  • They cannot communicate directly with anyone outside of the unit without a built-in time delay in the communication - the distance between Earth and Mars makes direct conversation impossible
  • They can only use the equipment, tools and food available to them inside the habitat.
In August of 2007 a four month mission was conducted at the Arctic Research Station (FMARS) on Devon Island in the high Canadian Arctic. It was the first time that a simulated Mars mission has ever been conducted for such a long duration. This landmark expedition performed research for eventual human missions to the Red Planet by conducting scientific exploration under nearly all of the constraints that astronauts on an actual Mars mission will one day face. In preparation for their unprecedented four-month Mars mission simulation, Commander Melissa Battler led a seven-member crew through two weeks of intense training at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southern Utah. The crew learned to work as a team with each other and with supporting groups, while familiarizing themselves with the procedures necessary for their full-scale mission this summer in the high Canadian Arctic.

Some of the science covered by the mission includes:
  • Temperature and flow relations in the active layer of the permafrost across -20 to 0 °C and applications to models of fluvial feature formation over permafrost on Earth and Mars.
  • Experiments with manipulation of the snow cover thickness and monitoring of the effect on the thaw of the underlying ground.
  • Measurement of melt generation in snowpacks and application to models for the melting of dusty snowpacks on Mars as the mechanism for creating gully features.
  • Measurement of in situ biological activity and changes in biological diversity and abundance as temperatures increase from -20 to 0 °C.
  • Measurement of the release of CH4 - an important greenhouse gas - from permafrost and possible applications to the source of CH4 on Mars.
  • Carbon release studies of permafrost as temperature changes, with applicability to global warming.
  • Deployment of interactive sensor networks to achieve science goals and human factors studies of the human - sensor network interface.
  • Isolation and confinement of this expedition enables research on human performance under extreme conditions analogous to space mission conditions.
  • Water utilization study, as water is one of the largest consumable masses on a long duration mission.

Our team is excited this project will provide additional simulation and science capability to the analog environments and also reach out to future explorers. Check the youtube link below for a slideshow from the 2007 FMARS expedition.

No comments: