by CRYSTAL ROSENE
Earth’s neighbour, the Red Planet, provides us with plentiful research opportunities involving analysis of real data gathered on robotic exploratory missions as well as hypothetical simulations carried out on Earth. The next logical step is a manned mission to Mars, but we must study more about the Martian environment and living conditions there. Good news: this project is currently underway!
We have learned much about the planet from 225 million kilometres away. The physical landscape consists of craters, canyons, channels (evidence of flowing water ~4 billion years ago), and planet-wide dust storms. Polar caps are thought to store water in winter and release it via sublimation in summer.
Mars has volcanoes, the largest of which is 25 km high and 600 km wide, similar to volcanoes in the Hawaiian chain. The atmosphere is 95% CO2, 2.7% nitrogen and 1.6% argon, with traces of oxygen. Although we have clearly learned much, we are by no means ready to set sail to the Red Planet…yet.
Despite all we know, most of Mars remains a mystery to us as there is a limit to the information we can gather via robotic exploration and computer simulations. To understand the planet further, we must commence manned missions.
The future of Mars is exciting, involving space travel, establishing a research base, and perhaps even colonization. Before any of this can happen though, we must learn to survive in an inhospitable environment. But did you know that we can carry out real-life simulations of Mars…on Earth?
This is precisely the goal of a Hawaii-based project known as HI-SEAS. The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation carries out “long duration Mars analog simulations operated by the University of Hawaii at Mānoa,” as described on their website. The HI-SEAS habitat (or Hab) is a 13,570 cubic foot geodesic dome located on the slopes of Mauna Loa at 8000 feet.
The location is crucial: little vegetation and few species make this dusty expanse of barren land their home, thus analogous to the Martian environment.
For anywhere from four months to a year at a time, groups of HI-SEAS researchers live exclusively in and around the Hab, in elaborate simulations of both the flight to Mars and the living conditions for the extended research period while on the planet. The mission’s goal is to determine factors that contribute to physical and mental well-being of the crew members while confined in a small space for extended periods of time.
Everything from living quarters to food is covered including performing ‘duties’ outside the Hab wearing replica spacesuits. The behaviour of individuals and dynamics of the crew as a whole are explored to help ensure the real thing will go smoothly.
Four missions have been completed, each longer than the last. The information gathered from this study is crucial to our future of space exploration. Although no manned missions to Mars have moved past the planning stages, HI-SEAS may help accelerate the process.
For more information on the HI-SEAS project, see the following websites: