When the Phoenix Mars Lander reaches the Red Planet in 2008, the $386-million robotic mission will begin exploring the icy Martian soil. Meanwhile, in a remote field station here on Earth, Canadian and American scientists have been engaged in a simulated expedition to Mars.
There is no place on Earth like Mars, except perhaps the arctic polar desert where Canadian geologist Melissa Battler commands a simulated mission at the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station, 1400 kilometers from the North Pole on Devon Island. "The work that we can do up here actually not only makes you feel like you are on Mars, but we are studying extreme environments that you might find on Mars."
Battler and her 7-member crew are part of the 11th Mars project at the remote outpost. "The mission will simulate everything from working conditions, to the field work we do outside, to the living conditions, to how we live and spend our spare time as well."
The Flashline Arctic Research Station looks a lot like a very tall tin can. Assembled on location at the edge of a 20-kilometer crater, it has an air-locked entryway, sleeping quarters, a kitchen, a laboratory and exercise space.
The crew initially got their water from snow, says Chief officer and Canadian engineer Matt Bamsey. "We had to go through the whole process of collecting snow, melting it and making sure that the quality was up to par and then using it just as if you were on a moon or Mars station."
The scientists are gathering data on microbial life in soil, snow and lakes. Research also includes physiological and psychological studies related to the work environment. Melissa Battler says managing the different projects requires careful planning. "We spent typically between 3 and 5 hours a day having one team go out on EVA [Extra-Vehicular Activity] to collect data in the field."
One team member is a polar bear monitor. "We think of that person as a maybe a robot that would just be there, but we can't really talk to," Battler says.
The crew has adapted to Mars-like constraints. Researchers wear space suits outdoors. At night windows are covered to shut out the 24-hour arctic daylight. The operation even runs on Mars time, a day that is 39 minutes longer than one on Earth. Battler says aside from getting hungry at weird hours of the day, the time change hasn't been a problem.
The crew tries to use those additional Mars minutes each day for extra sleep and not more work, according to Matt Bamsey. "So that 40 minutes cheers up the crowd in the morning because we are pretty busy with the work we have to do here, but having that extra time really helps out."
The $160,000 mission to the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station is funded largely by the Mars Society, a private group dedicated to human exploration of mars. Its president, astronomical engineer Robert Zubrin, says lessons learned in the Arctic simulation can help prepare future Mars explorers. "They are to find out how the astronaut crews should be trained, what techniques are likely to work, what kind of robots are likely to be useful to a crew, what kind of vehicles are likely to be useful to the crew, how much water the crew needs to use."
Mars simulation commander Melissa Battler says while she expects robots to be integral to exploration of the red planet, nothing can beat a trained scientist in the field. The trained scientists in the field at Devon Island will be eagerly following news of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander in its journey to our neighboring planet.