After spending 80 days living inside a two-story tin can in the Utah desert, the seven crew members of the Mars Society’s most recent red planet simulation will emerge from their mock interplanetary hideaway on December 13.
But this crew’s work isn’t done yet: After leaving Utah, the same crew members, who come from seven countries, will shutter themselves inside a similar habitat in the Canadian Arctic for another 80 days.
Over 15 field seasons, more than a thousand "desertnauts" have worked at the Mars Desert Research Station’s analog in Utah, which simulates the environment people might experience if they choose to live and work on the fourth rock from the sun.
Crew members can’t leave the lab without spacesuits, they face a 20-minute communications delay with people on the outside, water is limited, and fresh food mostly does not exist.
In this experiment, and others like it, the focus is not so much on studying how human physiology adapts to the harsh extremes of Martian surroundings—after all, it’s not possible to manufacture lower gravity, a strangling atmosphere, and toxic soils. Instead, these mock missions look primarily at how human minds and behaviours are affected by living in such desolate seclusion.
The two-phase Mars 160 mission intends to evaluate how scientists might go about studying another planet, which is why the crew members have been busy conducting microbiology, geology, and palaeontology experiments since late September.
They are also testing out a new spacesuit design and a system for vacuum-cleaning their laundry.
Parked at the end of Cow Dung Road near Hanksville, Utah, the Mars Society’s mock space base features a greenhouse inside a geodesic dome, an observatory, and the two-story cylindrical habitat, which measures just 26 feet across.
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The HI-SEAS habitat sits atop the Mauna Loa volcano, a barren region surrounded by harsh lava fields.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HI-SEAS/NASA
If this type of setup sounds familiar, that’s because it is. A handful of other faux space missions exist around the world, and scientists are using them to study various aspects of how humans respond to the challenges of travelling and living in deep space environments.
Most recently, a mock Mars crew emerged from a full year of isolation in the University of Hawaii’s Space Exploration Analog and Simulation program, on the slopes of Mauna Loa, Hawaii’s largest volcano. Here, six-member crews periodically inhabit the solar-powered, two-story geodesic dome and give NASA-funded researchers the chance to observe how humans respond to living in isolation.
NASA astronauts practice simulated space manoeuvres on the ocean floor in 2012.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA
The volcano’s lava fields, which blanket the land around the habitat, offer crews the chance to work in an environment that’s very much like places on Mars: rugged and dangerous, with lava tubes hiding beneath the sharp volcanic rocks.
Not all space analogues are on land. One, NASA’s Aquarius research station, is the only undersea research station on Earth.
Astronauts from five space agencies explore caves in Sardinia as part of a training course designed to teach them how to work effectively in multicultural teams when safety is critical.
PHOTOGRAPH BY V.CROBU, ESA
Crews participating in NASA’s Extreme Environment Missions Operations (NEEMO) spend as many as three weeks living underwater, where a habitat rests 62 feet below the surface, next to the coral reefs off Key Largo. There, four aquanauts at a time can practice living and working, in an environment that really wasn’t meant for humans to inhabit. Over the years, many astronauts who’ve gone to space have trained for the experience during some of NEEMO’s 21 missions.
There’s an undeniable fact about space travel: Sometimes, it’s going to be dark. On the moon or Mars, for instance, many mission plans call for a habitat inside caves or lava tubes, to protect astronauts from punishing cosmic radiation. Perhaps with that idea in mind, the European Space Agency set up a deep-space simulation in a network of caves more than half a mile below Sardinia’s surface. It’s called the Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behavior and performance Skills, or CAVES for short.
Down in the depths, six-member crews practice exploring a new world, using such strategies as buddy systems, moving slowly and deliberately through a challenging environment, and carefully planning what to bring to keep themselves safe. Missions to the perilous underworld are shorter than those above ground—the last CAVES mission, which took place this summer, was just six days long.
DEVON ISLAND, CANADA
The Canadian High Arctic—cold, seasonally quite dim, and unforgiving—is home to several space simulations, both of which are on Devon Island. The largest uninhabited island in the world, Devon is located in Baffin Bay and is normally home to small herds of musk oxen.
Occasionally, though, it also hosts mock astronauts. The Mars Society’s Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (or F-MARS) will be the new home for the Mission 160 team, where Utah’s newly emerged six-member team will retreat to for 80 days in 2017.
Cosmonauts in the Mars500 project prepare to take readings of their own brain activity during the mission.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ESA, MARS500 CREW
NASA also uses the Earthy Martian outpost on Devon, which is located on a rim overlooking the 14-mile-wide Haughton impact crater. Said to be the most Mars-like place on Earth, high-latitude Haughton is a barren, rocky desert where temperatures rarely rise above freezing.
If it seems as though you need to travel to exotic locations to find outer space on Earth, think again. The longest-running Mars simulation to date took place inside an otherwise unremarkable warehouse in Moscow, at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Biomedical Problems.
Called Mars-500 and run by the European Space Agency, Roscosmos, and China, the three-phase experiment culminated in six crew members locking themselves inside a simulated Mars habitat for 520 days—the estimated length of time it would take humans to travel to, land on, and get set up on Mars. The full experiment included a mock spacecraft, mock landing, and mock habitat on the Martian surface.
In a similar style, NASA has developed the Human Exploration Research Analog at Johnson Space Center in Houston. The project helps scientists better understand how humans deal with hurtling through the void of space in confined quarters, with nothing but blackness and faraway stars out the window, for long periods of time.
The Concordia station sits on a plateau more than 10,000 feet above sea level, where temperatures can drop to –112°F in the winter.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BETH HEALEY, PNRA, IPEV/ESA
Here, using the three-story simulator, scientists try to answer some tough questions: What’s it like living for days without sunlight? What happens to the mind when Earth—our home planet—is no longer visible? Do circadian rhythms still work? This year, during a series of 30-day missions inside HERA, four-member crews tested hardware and space food and practiced extravehicular activities on a virtual asteroid, one possible stepping stone on the path to Mars.
At the southern end of the Earth, a remote research station is helping the European Space Agency study what life beyond our planet would be like. Concordia, located on a high Antarctic plateau, is inhabited year-round by as many as 16 people at a time. Though the focus is mainly on studying climate, glaciology, and Earth’s magnetic field, life on the base also mimics some of the difficulties associated with space travel.
Researchers are keeping track of how things such as blood pressure and brain connections change while the scientists are living on the base. Studies also look at the eyesight and sleep cycles of those who endure the four months of darkness that characterises Antarctic winters. And the scientists themselves are studying how life might evolve and adapt to such harsh environments: One of Concordia’s projects involves the search for extremophiles, or viruses, bacteria, and fungi that have made it their business to thrive in unforgiving places where life’s foothold seems so tenuous.
Nadia Drake is a science journalist who writes the National Geographic blog No Place Like Home.