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Devon Island – Like No Place on Earth

August 21, 2006

By Howard Witt

DEVON ISLAND, Nunavut — They call this place “Mars on Earth,” and, for at least another generation, this barren, cratered island not far from the North Pole is as close to the Red Planet as any human being is going to get.

The climatic extremes here in the polar desert of Canada’s high Arctic resemble what is found in the polar regions of Mars. The geology of the sterile, rocky terrain is similar to that of the Martian surface. Even the water here, most of it perpetually locked in ice beneath the permafrost, closely parallels what scientists believe exists on Mars.

Which is why, every summer for the last 10 years, a handful of geologists, astronomers, engineers and NASA researchers have been camping atop the frozen arctic ground here, along the rim of the giant 23 million-year-old Haughton asteroid crater, to begin figuring out how astronauts can one day survive on Mars.

Far to the south, in NASA centers in Texas, California, Alabama and elsewhere, the wheels of the space agency’s giant bureaucracy have begun slowly turning toward new missions to the moon by 2020 and Mars sometime afterward. The first rockets are being designed, prototypes of possible spacecraft are under construction, and the competition for huge aerospace contracts will soon begin.

But up here, the journey to Mars is already well under way.

A group of Canadian scientists has built a robotic greenhouse that grows plants completely on its own–a prototype for a module that will be essential on Mars so future explorers can produce food and oxygen.

Hamilton Sundstrand Corp., manufacturer of NASA’s spacesuits, was here testing lighter, more flexible suit designs for astronauts who will need to spend long periods traversing the Martian surface while constantly bending and reaching to collect samples.

NASA geologists and engineers recently finished proving out an automated drill that can change bits, alter speed and adjust direction without any human oversight, an invention that will help in the search for frozen water deep beneath Mars’ surface.

A medical team from the Johnson Space Center in Houston simulated the rescue of an astronaut injured during a Mars foray, including a mountaineering-style recovery by other astronauts as Mission Control looked over their shoulders via body sensors and helmet-mounted cameras.

Mental health being observed

A psychologist from France was busy observing all the researchers, collecting data on the adverse mental effects on a small group subjected to prolonged isolation in a harsh environment–something NASA needs to understand before it lofts a crew to Mars on a mission that could last as long as three years.

“A human mission to Mars might be 30 years away or more, but one day it will happen,” said Pascal Lee, 43, the NASA astronomer who first visited this place a decade ago and supervises the NASA Haughton-Mars Project, as the program is known. “The fundamental lessons we are learning here need to be learned now. On the moon and Mars, it’s going to be all about fieldwork, geology, reconnaissance, resource assessment, traversing vast tracts of territory–all of this stuff we do on a daily basis here.”

For most of the year, the population of this desolate island the size of West Virginia consists of polar bears, a few caribou and the occasional eider duck. The closest human settlement lies some 200 miles to the northeast across the frigid Jones Sound, in the tiny Inuit hamlet of Grise Fiord.

But for a brief six-week field season from July through early August each year, Lee is joined by about 40 other scientists who sleep in tents staked into the jagged ground and work and eat inside sheds made of plywood and canvas.

There are other occasional visitors. Tight-lipped geologists from the De Beers diamond company were quietly scouting the island this summer in search of likely spots to mine for the precious gems. And amateur Mars enthusiasts from a group called the Mars Society run a kind of extraterrestrial summer camp some years, hosting tourists who live aboard a simulated Mars capsule they’ve built here. The visitors dress in mock spacesuits and go out on pretend exploratory missions.

There’s no pretending in Lee’s camp, however: Everything is very real, and very uncomfortable. When it rains or snows, as it does occasionally, the researchers get wet; when it freezes–summertime temperatures normally range from 30 to 50 degrees–they shiver. The sun shines 24 hours a day through the dangerous northern hole in the ozone layer, requiring constant protection from its damaging radiation. To prevent pollution of the pristine environment, every scrap of trash and all human waste are collected in bags and barrels and either burned or flown out for disposal. A hot shower means dumping a bag of heated water over your head–if you can endure being naked in the cold in order to take it.

The one thing camp residents do get is high-tech communications. Thanks to painstaking placement of satellite dishes and the constant hum of generators, the camp offers high-speed wireless Internet connections faster than most people can get at home, as well as video teleconferencing and a phone system wired directly into NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. The scientists here need only dial a four-digit extension to reach their colleagues down south behind their desks.

It is not uncommon to see a parka-clad researcher traversing ground where no human has ever set foot while clutching a notebook computer and checking his Yahoo e-mail.

A sought-after assignment

Yet for all the physical hardships, the scientists clamor to come here–and pay per-night fees for services, transportation and supplies that make a suite at the Ritz-Carlton seem like a bargain–because there is no other place like this on Earth.

“Mars is the only subfield of astronomy with any real fieldwork, and this is the field,” said Melissa Rice, 23, a graduate student in astronomy from Cornell University who was studying ground formations on Devon Island that could predict the best landing sites for NASA’s next unmanned probes to Mars. “If you study black holes, you can’t ever get close to one to actually see it. Mars is where it’s at for my generation.”

Unlike many older space enthusiasts, Rice might actually see a Mars mission during her professional career. When President Bush laid out the nation’s new space exploration goals in a 2004 speech, White House officials suggested a Mars mission could occur by 2030, assuming future politicians continue to budget for the hundreds of billions of dollars such an adventure will likely cost.

No scientist here argues that Devon Island is exactly like the polar regions of Mars, which are far colder and drier, not to mention more noxious, than the Arctic. But this place is one of the closest analogues to Mars that can be found on Earth, not least because of the presence of the 12.5-mile-long Haughton crater.

Most of the 174 asteroid and meteorite impact craters that have been discovered on Earth, Lee said, are either under water or in hot deserts, tropical jungles or wet arctic tundra. The Haughton crater is the only one that lies completely exposed in a cold, dry environment similar to what exists on Mars, which has been constantly pummeled by similar space debris.

That’s important because scientists searching for signs of life on Mars, as well as engineers planning a human mission to the planet, can deduce much by studying the Haughton crater.

A map to life forms

For example, geologists here have discovered evidence of ancient microbial life in the rocks and fossils around the rim of the crater–life that was facilitated by superheated Yellowstone-like water gushers set off by the asteroid’s impact that appear to have lasted hundreds or thousands of years. Those findings, in turn, are pointing astrobiologists to the most likely locations to search for signs of life around similar craters on Mars.

“Mostly this life was at the periphery of the impact zone,” Lee said. “This in turn tells you where you might find this on Mars. Where would you go with your rover–to the center of a crater? To the edge? We provide the answer–to the edge.”

Similarly, comparisons of photographs of the surface of Mars and the area around the Haughton crater show gullies, valleys and canyons that look startlingly alike. Because Lee and his colleagues know that those distinctive geologic features on Devon Island were scoured by glaciers and melting ice, rather than fast-running rivers, they have challenged the prevailing scientific wisdom that Mars was once much warmer and wetter than it is now.

“The conclusion of this is that Mars may have been simply covered by ice sheets and glaciers consistent with a climate that was always cold,” Lee said. “Life could still be there, but now we know it might be even more difficult to find.”

Before scientists can begin to prove their theories about life on Mars, however, astronauts will have to make it there–and back. That was the focus of Dr. Richard Scheuring’s work at the Haughton crater in late July.

Scheuring, a NASA flight surgeon at Johnson Space Center and a Chicago-area native, was leading a team that simulated how astronauts on the moon or Mars could rescue a colleague who suffers an injury while exploring the surface, away from the safety of a space capsule or habitation module.

The process, it turns out, resembles an alpine rescue, complete with a litter, ropes and pulleys.

“No one ever thought about these things before during the Apollo program,” Scheuring said, because the moonwalks were brief, not especially strenuous and kept close to the lunar landing module.

But on Mars, where even the planet’s closest orbit to Earth of 36 million miles translates to communications delays of at least 20 minutes, the astronauts will have to solve many of their own problems in real time, without the benefit of immediate advice from Mission Control back in Houston.

“The real value on Devon is establishing communications, working through things from a remote site,” Scheuring said. “We could do this in a field behind JSC [the Johnson Space Center], pretending to extract someone. But this is much closer to what would happen on Mars.”

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CAN YOU TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CANADA AND MARS?

CANADA

AGE

Haughton crater: 23 million years

AVG. TEMPERATURE

Devon Island: 1.4 degrees

DURATION OF FLIGHT

Chicago to Devon Island: About 12 hours

ATMOSPHERE

Main element: Nitrogen Amount of oxygen: 21%

MARS

AGE

Average crater 2.5-3.8 billion years

AVG. TEMPERATURE -76 degrees

DURATION OF FLIGHT

Earth to Mars: About six months

ATMOSPHERE Main element: Carbon dioxide

Amount of oxygen: Less than 1%

GRAVITY

A 160-pound person weighs about 60 pounds on Mars

Sources: NASA Houghton-Mars Project, Ohio State and UCLA Web sites

hwitt@tribune.com




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