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Explorers return to Mars in Canada

Researchers have set up camp in the Canadian Arctic once again, testing the tools and techniques that could be used on future human missions to Mars, the moon ... or wherever.

This is the 14th year of operation for the Haughton-Mars Project, a NASA-backed expedition that brings scores of researchers to the 12-mile-wide (20-kilometer-wide) Haughton Crater on Canada's Devon Island for several weeks starting every July. The 2010 field campaign is getting under way this week.

"I say jokingly that the Haughton Mars Project has lasted longer than the Apollo moon program," Pascal Lee, the project's creator and director, told me. "It's a project that's been somewhat high-profile but has received relatively low levels of funding. But I'm not complaining about that. This site is going to remain and continue to grow as one of the most important analog sites for exploration fo the moon, Mars and other places."

It will be years, and most likely decades, before humans actually walk on the surface of Mars. But Devon Island - as well as other Mars analogs in Utah, Sweden, Russia and elsewhere - can give researchers and mission planners ample opportunities to find out what kinds of vehicles, equipment and strategies are best-suited for interplanetary exploration. They can even sort out the interpersonal issues that may come with a long-duration space mission.

In the past, I've compared such simulated missions to a game of "Survivor" played on a make-believe Mars. But there's nothing make-believe about the science. The cold, dry environment of Devon Island serves as one of our planet's best stand-ins for Martian surroundings, and Lee says that opens the way for "comparative geology with Mars."

That's just one of the themes for this season's science program. Other experiments will focus on drilling into Haughton Crater's frozen ground for biological sampling, chemically processing the site's nutrient-poor soil to make it more fertile, and using remote-operated rovers to follow up on past geological studies.

"Most people in the space program, when they think of a robotic rover, tend to think of something going in advance of a humsn crew. ... Here, the question that was asked from a scientific standpoint is, 'What if we use the robotic asset as a follow-up tool, not a reconnaissance tool?'" Lee explained.

Such studies have obvious implications for the design of future space missions. If robots can take on more of the burden of exploration - not just in the beginning stages, but throughout the entire program - that will greatly reduce the costs and risks associated with human spaceflight.

One of the projects planned for this year involves having a remotely operated vehicle drive 10 miles (17 kilometers) from one site to another, stopping along the way to study areas of scientific interest and getting the second site set up for the arrival of a human crew. "It's going to take five days of driving, basically," Lee said.

This experiment was originally designed as a way to help NASA plan for a robotic convoy's journey from Shackleton Crater near the lunar south pole to Malapert Mountain, a distance of 120 miles (200 kilometers). NASA's revised space vision may be downplaying lunar exploration, but the lessons learned during the Arctic simulations can help shape future missions to a Martian moon, a near-Earth asteroid or anyplace else where boots and wheels will set down on alien ground.

"We're of course realizing that Haughton is not the moon," Lee said. "We're looking at categories of things that will surprise us. Are there sudden drops in elevation, is there terrain roughness? Is it the lack of 3-D information about slopes that will throw us off? How do we manage power?"

The Haughton team will test equipment being considered for future exploration, including NASA's four-wheeled K10 rover and a Humvee vehicle outfitted with K10 instruments as a stand-in for a large pressurized rover. Researchers will try out prototypes for next-generation spacesuits that astronauts can climb into through an innovative suitport. That spacesuit experiment, but the way, is being funded not by NASA but by the suits' developer, Hamilton Sundstrand.

"We're leveraging research and development here," Lee said. "I think it's fair to say that in terms of the overall effort that's behind what's being tested at Haughton this year, there are literally tens of millions of dollars involved. But in terms of how much this particular campaign is going to cost ... we're talking about a figure that's about $750,000 or so."

When you're talking about the Canadian Arctic, the logistics can get gnarly pretty quickly: Virtually everything has to be flown in, usually via a circuitous route. For example, this week the New York Air National Guard is flying in cargo and personnel via Moffett Field in California, Vancouver in British Columbia and Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island in Nunavut.

When researchers finally get to Haughton, they'll have to hunker down in a spartan tent city, amid barren surroundings and freezing temperatures. They'll have to watch out for the occasional polar bear, a threat that Martian settlers will probably never have to worry about. But on the bright side, the food has gotten good reviews in past years. The conversations are sure to be stimulating. And the communication links are fantastic.

"We have a wireless Internet connection that is up at the T1 level," Lee said. "You can walk around with your laptop and work while you order a book from Amazon."

The Haughton-Mars Project is managed by the Mars Institute, with support from the SETI Institute and funding from private ventures as well as educational institutions, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. Lee is proud to proclaim that the project's base on Devon Island "is now the largest privately operated polar research station in the world."

"It's more than an arcane claim to fame. It's actually a sign of the times," he said.

Operations at the research station could well serve as a model for future space exploration. "It's a paradigm for an international station that might be used by different countries on the moon or Mars, but operated by a private organization," Lee said.

But the Haughton-Mars Project isn't the only paradigm that's out there. Here's a quick rundown on other Mars analog projects:

• The nonprofit Mars Society is recruiting crew members for its 10th annual series of simulation missions at its Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah, starting in November. Like the Haughton-Mars Project, the main goal of the MDRS missions is "to find out what exploration strategies and tactics work on Mars," Robert Zubrin, the society's president, told me. In 2011, the Mars Society will conduct an Arctic field season on Devon Island as well, at the Flashline Mars Analog Research Station. You can find out a lot more about Arctic as well as desert Mars simulations at the Mars Society's annual convention, scheduled next month in Dayton, Ohio.

• The Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition is getting under way this month in Sweden. Researchers will study the area's Mars-like carbonate deposits and test biosensor technology that is being developed for future Mars missions.

• The Mars500 isolation experiment is well under way at Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems. This is an ambitious test to see how six guys get along while they're cooped up for a simulated 520-day Mars mission. They'll have to stay inside their spaceship simulator until November 2011. One of the crew members, Diego Urbina, is a veteran of a Mars Society simulation and is keeping up an online diary during his confinement. On Wednesday he wrote that he and his colleagues are "having our first contact with the real execution of some of the experiments."

• In addition to these crew simulations, Mars analog experiments are being carried out in other climes around the world, including Antarctica, Spain, Chile and the Australian Outback. Check out this rundown from NASA Quest.

In addition to laying the scientific groundwork for future space odysseys, such simulations help keep the dream of interplanetary travel alive for a generation of would-be explorers. And the way things are looking now, it may take another generation before the lessons learned in earthly expeditions are applied to an actual mission to Mars. Or can that schedule be accelerated? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Correction for 1:30 p.m. ET July 9: The Haughton-Mars Project's associate director and chief engineer, Stephen Braham, points out in a Twitter tweet that I was wrong to say the HMP's Internet connection is better than it will ever be on Mars. "Our data rate is smaller than we'll have on Mars!" he writes. Sorry about that! I've made the fix.


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