Simulating a Martian Colony in the Arctic

Categories: Feature Stories Mars

Once again, an island in the Canadian high arctic, a polar desert of a world, will serve this summer as a little bit of Mars on Earth.

Visit Devon Island
For six weeks last summer, a rough uninhabited island in the Arctic Circle became the focus of preparations for a human journey to Mars and a search for life there. Click here for’s Special Report on what NASA and the Mars Society pulled off at Devon Island — with pictures and reporting directly from the field.

Starting this week, new arrivals take up residence in the Mars Society’s Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station for the second summer in a row. The site at Devon Island also serves as home-away-from-home for members of the NASA-led Haughton-Mars Project. This cosmic campsite is prepared to trial run off-world technologies and research strategies.

And it is another type of proving ground: A site to hone the esprit-de-corps needed to open up the frontier of Mars to human exploration.

First wave

Researchers have chosen Devon Island as it offers Mars-like geological and glacial features.

Remote, stark, and uninhabited, the island is decorated by a heavenly touch. The 12 mile (20 kilometer) in diameter Haughton meteorite impact crater, formed 23 million years ago, adds to the alien look of the landscape.

Built last year, the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) had a limited shakeout period. It was then deserted as the brutal, Devon Island winter set in. The station survived that ordeal in tip-top shape.

The facility is now ready to greet its first wave of explorers for the summer 2001 season. They will reside at the FMARS from June 28 to July 7. Following this group, there will be five crew rotations, with the last team leaving Devon Island in mid-August.

In total, 25 people, 12 new members and 13 returning members from the first season, are to occupy the FMARS. Volunteers all, the Devon Island devotees include chemists, engineers, physicists and geologists, as well as biology, computer and robot experts, with an independent filmmaker in the mix as well.

"Our first expedition was primarily devoted to building the station. We encountered significant adversity, which we were successful in overcoming. But it curtailed the field season to just a very nominal, four-day shakedown," said Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, based in Indian Hills, Colorado.

Slogging back to the island two months ago, an advance team found the station had survived the winter nicely. A large number of interior improvements to the station were made in preparation for the upcoming summer field season, Zubrin told

Time delay

Over a two-month period, Zubrin said, six different crews will spend on the order of nine days each conducting a sustained program of field geology and biology, under Mars mission-like constraints.

Zubrin is slated to be commander of two of the six teams.

"You won’t be able to go outside without wearing space suits. Communications between each other will be by radio. You’ll have to spend 10 minutes in the airlock going out and coming back into the station," Zubrin said.

Even communications between the station and off-Devon Island nodes will be buffered through time delays. That mimics what would actually occur between Earth and Mars due to the distance between the planets, he said.

Zubrin said various types of communication protocols are to be studied. For instance, having Devon Island team members setting their own research agenda will be evaluated.

"Many people believe that Mars mission crews need to be significantly empowered to a much greater extent than has been the case in the past. This will be one of our experiments," Zubrin said.

Keeping an eye on water is also on tap. "We want to evaluate the effect on morale because of severely constrained water use," Zubrin said.

Zubrin expects this year’s expedition to offer, by orders of magnitude, the most in-depth Mars simulation ever undertaken.

Mars walks

Commander of four of the six tours-of-duty by separate crews falls to Pascal Lee, project scientist for the Mars Society’s Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station.

Lee is also principal investigator for the NASA/SETI Institute Haughton-Mars Project, a wide-ranging study being carried out on Devon Island too.

"The Haughton Mars Project is about exposing as many people as possible to the flavor of what a Mars mission might be like," Lee told Information technologies useful for manipulating, transferring, managing, and browsing data are to be judged, he said.

Another high-priority area, Lee said, are classes of tools needed inside the research station. Rock processing equipment, microscopes and video recording hardware, including the time needed for crews to utilize gear to scrutinize specimens is to be gauged.

"We want to know how many rocks can you reasonably expect to cut up with the tools you have," Lee said.

Simulated Mars walks are to be heavily monitored.

A large element of the research led by Lee centers on situational awareness: How would a Mars expedition report to Earth day-to-day happenings, both of a personal nature or sending back science updates from the field?

Devon Island researchers can be linked to scientists stationed at a NASA Ames Research Center control room and to a smaller node in Denver, Colorado, Lee said.

Hand-in-hand: government and private sector

This year, the NASA/SETI Institute Haughton-Mars Project plans to appraise all manner of machinery.

Carnegie Mellon’s Hyperion robot is to be exercised in the field. So too is a microrover built by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). A prototype of a Mars airplane is scheduled to take wing and buzz over Devon Island, sending back aerial images to help plan ground traverses.

Hamilton Sundstrand is trying out a "concept" space suit for future Mars explorers, Lee said. Additionally, all-terrain vehicles donated by Kawasaki serve as surrogate Mars rovers for single seat mobility around the island. Tethered by a long cord to one vehicle will be a camera-toting balloon. Also secured to that balloon is a radio antenna so a person can scout far away from base camp, yet stay in touch, he said.

Numbers of items like the space suits and personal rovers are brought to Devon Island under private-sector sponsorship, Lee said.

"This combination of how the private sector and the government can work together productively is an important step. I think what we’re doing here is possibly showing how we might actually carry out the human exploration of Mars … by combination of the government and the private sector working hand in hand," Lee said.

Desert habitat ready to go

Zubrin said fabrication of the Mars Desert Research Station is finished. This second Mars station is on exhibit at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center visitor’s complex.

Constructed for the Mars Society by Built on Integrity (BOI) of Boulder City, Nevada, the lightweight desert station effort was led by Scott Fisher of the Fisher Space Pen company. Fisher is also founder of BOI.

The new station is headed for deployment in a Mars analog desert environment.

That location will soon be announced, Zubrin said. Along with California’s Mojave desert, other areas inspected by Mars Society officials include Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Texas, he said.

"The idea is that the new desert station will be operational in the fall, winter and spring, with the Devon Island station running in the summer. So we’ll have year-round operations," Zubrin said. Other stations positioned in Australia and Iceland are being considered too, he said.

Zubrin said that the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada has recently become a major sponsor of the Mars Society’s efforts. Yet another new sponsor is the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, he said.

Union sponsorship of the Mars Desert Research Station represents something even broader, Zubrin said. This is the same kind of alliance that made possible the Apollo project, which includes not only the scientific community, but labor and industry as well, he said.

"This is a major step forward," Zubrin said. "They want to send a message that you don’t have to be a fighter pilot to be a space pioneer. When cities are built on Mars, it’s the men and women like them who are going to build those cities."