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One Student’s Experience With Life On The Red Planet

October 2, 2012

As NASA’s Curiosity rover scours the surface of Mars and beams pictures of the stark and desolate landscape back to Earth, we’ve begun to paint a picture of what living on the red planet might actually be like.

In this month’s Physics World, Ashley Dale, a PhD student at the University of Bristol, brings this image to life by giving his account of the two weeks he spent living in the Utah desert as part of a simulated Mars mission.

Comparing his surroundings to a “Monet landscape”, Dale recalls expeditions across the “paprika-colored” desert on an all-terrain quad bike and living out of a Habitat Module — a two-floored, silo-shaped capsule small enough to fit on top of the main rocket booster of a launch vehicle.

Accompanying Dale on his mission were a journalist, a geologist, an astrobiologist, an aerospace engineer and an industrial designer. They all lived out of the same Habitat Module, which included six compact bedrooms (each little more than 1 m by 3 m), a communal area, kitchen, toilet, shower, computer stations and a number of labs for the crew to work in.

Each year, around 10 of these six-person crews spend two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, which is operated by the Mars Society as part of a research project looking into such topics as the design features of habitat modules, psychological tests of crew members, assessment of crew-selection procedures and even tests to determine the best kinds of food for Mars explorers.

In the article, Dale recalls a close encounter with a “Martian” (which turned out to be a desert mouse), being flung off his quad bike into a ditch, conversations about science policy around the dinner table, and watching sci-fi films to relax at night.

Of course, each of the crew members had specific tasks to complete during the mission. Dale was involved in a project to assess the functionality of a small, remote-controlled rover carrying a wireless video camera, which was used as a scout to explore hard-to-reach places.

Other members of the crew studied how space suits limited their ability to perform tasks such as collecting samples and isolating organisms — something that would be very important on a real Mars mission. Every evening, each member of the crew completed surveys about the food and their psychological states.

On the first evening, the station’s engineering co-ordinator, John Barainca, exited the Habitat Module after giving the crew a full tour. Dale recalls the exact words Barainca said as he turned and stood there in the moonlight.

Dale writes: “‘You know, guys,’ he said, reflectively, ‘we all have one thing in common: we’re all nuts.’ And with that, he sealed the exterior airlock door behind him. Our two-week simulation had begun.”

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