Beyond Earth

Charles Fergus
May 01, 2003

In a meteorite crater blasted into arctic Canada 23 million years ago, scientists and engineers are spending the long, light-filled northern summers practicing being on Mars. “While much research has been directed to solving the problem of getting humans to Mars and back,” writes Pascal Lee in the May/June 2002 issue of The Planetary Report, “little attention and almost no dedicated field studies have addressed what humans will do once they reach the Red Planet.

“How will human explorers live and work on Mars?”

aerial view of crater with tents
Pascal Lee

Base camp in Haughton Crater, with "Downtown" in the foreground (mess hall and science areas) and, in the background, "Tent City," where scientists sleep beneath the midnight sun.

A planetary scientist affiliated with the nonprofit organization SETI, or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Lee is principal investigator of NASA's Haughton-Mars Project. He was the second scheduled speaker in the 2003 Frontiers of Science lecture series. It was a strange day: Held up in Chicago by a snowstorm, Lee arrived late at University Park and ended up giving his talk to a handful of students. That morning, the space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated when re-entering Earth's atmosphere, killing the seven astronauts on board. The tragedy underscored the dangers of space travel and cast doubt on the future of manned space flight.

Space exploration is a potentially deadly enterprise, Lee freely admitted. The research he directs at Haughton Crater on Devon Island, Nunavut Territory, Canada, aims to identify and reduce the perils of dwelling in an alien place, and to characterize the requirements of active field work there. The Haughton-Mars Project is shedding light on the geological history of both Earth and Mars, and on the resilience of life in an earthly desert—life that may resemble yet-to-be-found organisms on Mars.

Haughton Crater is the only known terrestrial impact structure in a cold, dry, windy, rocky, dusty, ultraviolet-light-drenched (at least in summer) place. This divot in the polar desert provides, according to Lee, an excellent “Mars analog.” There, erosion is retarded in the desiccant chill, preserving a crater strikingly similar to many of those photographed by satellites orbiting Mars: researchers have even picked out a twin on Mars, Crater Newport, an identical 12.4 miles in diameter and transected by a valley like the one cutting across Haughton. Team members have spent the last six summers at Haughton, living in tents in a snow-patched, rubbly base camp where shotgun-toting Inuit teenagers (local hires from nearby Resolute Bay, population 200) guard against marauding polar bears. Although researchers frequently see bears from the air, none of the creatures have yet entered the camp, perhaps put off by the around-the-clock nattering of electric generators. Polar bears, “something that's hungry and looking for you,” noted Lee, “presumably are not Mars analogs.”

At Haughton, scientists have conducted ground-penetrating radar surveys and shallow excavations showing that impact deposits can hold massive amounts of subterranean ice. Haughton has yielded evidence of ancient hydrothermal sites, hot springs along the crater's rim created by the tremendous heat released by meteorite impact—at similar sites on Mars, life, perhaps migrating on meteorites, “might have gained a foothold and thrived,” Lee said.

Project geologists have found networks of valleys similar to some on Mars. In the past, scientists have suggested that these fluvial landforms arose when the red planet had a warm, wet climate. Lee, however, believes they have “nothing to do with rain, or water flowing at a trickle, or water coming out of the ground.” Rather, the valleys were born “underneath an ice sheet” like the one that lay a mile thick atop the Canadian arctic 10,000 years in the past. According to Lee, 95 percent of the bio-mass on Devon Island “consists of microbes hiding in the soil or inside rocks.” Saw a rock open, and just beneath the surface you'll find “a little rind of green: colonies of cyanobacteria thriving happily in nooks and crannies.” Rocks in meteorite craters tend to be “spongy”: shattered, fractured, with pockets of vaporized minerals, offering “habitats for microbial colonization.” Lee wonders if microbes may turn up inside similar Mars rocks. Or perhaps explorers will find biofilms: ultraviolet-blocking compounds evolved by some of the bacteria at Haughton. Such a bacterium “secretes a spacesuit for itself, to protect it from the environment.” Since the biofilms resist degradation, our search for life on Mars, suggested Lee, “may not be geared so much to finding the fossil remains of the life itself” but rather “the biofilms it could have produced” to shrug off ultraviolet radiation.

As Haughton-Mars project members drill into the ground, ride around on rover-simulating all-terrain vehicles, use computers, whack away with hammers at rock ledges—even rappel down cliffs—they're followed by researchers documenting what Lee calls “the ethnography of exploration”: physical activities, but also the interactions between scientists and their colleagues at the base camp and with advisors at Mission Support at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas, with whom Haughton-Mars personnel remain in constant contact as would explorers on a real Mars mission. Satellite communications run under a computer-simulated delay of 4 to 20 minutes, mimicking the time it would take for messages to bounce between Mars and Earth.

man with glasses in astronaut suit
Pascal Lee

Encased in an experimental spacesuit, Stephen Braham of Simon Fraser University tests a wearable computer; he looks at an eyepiece-mounted display while controlling the cursor with a chest-mounted mousepad.

“When you go out on a traverse, how long does it typically last? How many rocks do you collect? How many times do you have to bend down? What kinds of tools do you want? How big should a party be? How often do you need to talk to one another?” Said Lee, “It's an incredible opportunity to learn how to do exploration systematically.” Data generated by field studies will let planners create “computer models that will eventually help design and optimize future human missions of exploration”: to Mars, other planets, the Moon, or asteroids.

Project members work out protocols for surface travel using ATVs donated by Kawasaki; the Japanese company hopes to make real rovers someday. For short recons around the base camp, suggested Lee, robots might go first. Said Lee, if the robots found “things of interest, things you may want to collect,” astronauts could leave the safe haven of a habitat module (a prototype was erected at Haughton) and venture forth on rovers. “When we go out in this mode, we actually pretend we have only two hours of oxygen in our backpacks,” he said. “We look at those kinds of contraints and see how they drive our activities.”

The Haughton researchers wear space suits under development by the Connecticut-based aerospace firm Hamilton-Sund-strand, and document the restrictions that the protective coverings impose. Space suits for Mars will differ radically from the ones now used by astronauts outside the shuttle and the International Space Station. Because of gravity differences, Mars suits will weigh 65 pounds or less, about half as heavy as the shuttle-type suits; so that astronauts can walk around, the Mars garb will be much more flexible. Lee characterized the space suit as “a wearable spacecraft” that must be “reliable, reusable, repairable”—a huge engineering challenge that “probably will require 10 solid years of development.”

Researchers at Haughton have tested a range of technologies from wearable computers to epifluorescence microscopes for indepth analysis of rock samples. There's a solar-powered robotic rover that spent 24 hours making a circuitous tour of the crater, navigating through rock fields and avoiding obstacles on its own while sensors kept its solar panels pointed at the sun. Scientists used a small airplane with a six-foot wing-span to videotape the landscape from various angles and perspectives: on Mars, a similar plane could give explorers side-on looks at steep features like gullies and crater walls.

Despite the morning's Columbia disaster, Lee wanted to head for Mars sooner rather than later. He advocated a strategy for Mars exploration like the one directing our current scrutiny of Antarctica: “You establish a beachhead first. Then you grow a base like McMurdo, and from there you explore the rest of the continent”—in the case of Mars, the rest of the planet. He ticked off the on-site hazards: bitter cold, heightened radiation, solar ultraviolet light 800 to 1,000 times as intense as on Earth. In photographs sent back by NASA probes, Mars is “deceivingly friendly in its looks; it may look more like Arizona than the moon, but it's utterly lethal,” Lee said.

“Our goal should not be ‘Let's get humans to Mars.' It needs to be: ‘Let's establish a permanently crewed research station by 2030.' That will force us to send humans to Mars within the 2017 to 2025 time frame.”

Last Updated May 01, 2003