Hanksville - Mar 6, 2002
The tour of duty for the second crew of the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is coming to a close, formally ending on March 7th, 2002. The past two weeks of activities has marked an exciting, stimulating, and at times challenging environment for everyone here.
Overall I would call our time here a great success, as we maintained a mindset of living on "analog Mars" while engaging in various scientific and technical investigations geared toward the future exploration of the red planet.
Located in Southeastern Utah, MDRS (affectionately called "Hab" by crew members) exists in a geologist's dream of exposed sediments from the Cretaceous and Jurassic ages. Looking out the portholes of the Hab, there is little doubt you are on Mars; the red landscape is shaped by a combination of rounded hills, buttes, sharp ridgelines and jagged rocks, formed by a history of receding and advancing oceans as well as natural erosion over millions of years.
Five of us arrived here almost two weeks ago, joining an existing crew member who was already here and overlapping from the last rotation. As I am sure will be the case with many future MDRS crews, our group is diverse; Andy De Wet, the carry-over member from the first rotation, is a professor of geology.
Jon Rask is a Lockheed engineer working on building incubators for the laboratories of the International Space Station (ISS). Don Barker, from the NASA Johnson Space Center, also works with the ISS as a controller and planner for station activities.
Gilles Dawidowicz is a Geomorphologist from France. Fred Janson is our resident biologist, and I round out the crew, being a space and planetary scientist from the University of California at Berkeley. Midway into our tour, Andy De Wet was replaced by John Putman, a neuro-feedback expert, here to study our brain activity during MDRS operations.
The central purpose of the MDRS is to learn and demonstrate techniques for accomplishing scientifically valid field research and experiments while under the constraints of living on the surface of a planet with a hostile environment – in this case Mars.
The emphasis for this simulation – or "sim" as we call it – are the ergonomic factors associated with what a real Mars crew would have to endure while exploring the surface. This includes six people learning how to live and work within the confines of the Hab, monitoring and controlling our food and water intake, limiting communication to a single satellite link, and performing all field work outside using bulky, prototype space suits, complete with backpacks and functioning air hoses.
All-Terrain Vehicles are used to get around the area. Each day, we all meet at 9am to discuss the next planned Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA). Selected crewmembers suit up, exit the airlock following a depressurization protocol, and get on with the day's work.
Members staying behind at the Hab engage in EVA radio support as well as Hab upkeep and maintenance, clearly another important activity to practice for a real mission to Mars.
The science and technology investigations carried out during our time here were as varied as the crew. Gilles brought a unique rover called the "Cliff Reconnaissance Vehicle" (CRV), which scales down the sides of cliffs with the help of a human operator at the top. A camera pointed at the cliff walls during the descent obtains detailed, high resolution images of the rock strata, aiding in the interpretation of the geologic history of the area.
Fantastic demonstrations of this rover concept were performed in "Candor Chasma," a deep canyon a few kilometers Southeast of the Hab. One of my pet projects involves techniques to find subsurface water on Mars, using electromagnetic sounding techniques. Materials buried beneath the surface such as ores, water, and natural gas can distort ambient electromagnetic fields in predictable ways, detectable from hand-held instruments used by scientists in walking surveys.
This type of technology may be an important part of future Mars expeditions, as the crew attempts to scout for resources that may be locked beneath the surface – resources that may be key for the mission's very survival.
The team that picked the MDRS site as an analog Mars may have done their job too well – my sounder results showed a very uniform subsurface, and only detected a few possible faults beneath some sandstone.
Fred engaged in research on extremophiles – a unique class of bacteria able to live in extreme environments. Modified versions of extremophiles may be able to someday live and proliferate on Mars, aiding in the successful biotransformation of that planet as part of a larger a terraforming effort. Microbes found living in a water-ice mixture in a shadowed region of White Rock Canyon, ~4.5 km Southeast of the Hab, may fall into this category.
Our geologist Andy has studied the area from a comprehensive point of view, attempting to relate how the search for past of present life on Mars would fit in with the known geology, emphasizing cooperational efforts between geologists and biologists. Andy's replacement John has measured our brain waves – some of us may have some signs of fatigue, if the larger than normal signals in the 1-2 Hz range are any indicator.
Clearly, crew mental health is going to be an issue for any long term Mars exploration mission. Our most recent investigation here was in the utility of adding sensitive external microphones to the Mars surface suits, in an attempt to enhance the suit user's ability to hear and interpret natural sounds outside, normally muffled by the helmet or obscured by the suit fans.
The initial tests of this system were remarkably successful, increasing the communication and safety factors during our last EVA. Such a system should also work on Mars; despite the thin atmosphere, sounds are not below what standard microphones and audio amplifiers can detect.
Not all of our investigations our complete to date, and some won't be for some time. The operation of MDRS is an evolving process, as is our quest to understand and explore Mars.
Our experience here has only whetted our appetites; understanding Mars today may yield the secrets of our history and origin, while exploring and ultimately modifying the red planet may hold the key to our prosperity and perhaps even the very survival of the human race.
Some might consider MDRS a small step – but with the dedication of each successive crew, our knowledge of how to perform meaningful scientific exploration in environments like these will grow with time. If we are fortunate, there may come a time when such knowledge is desperately needed.
On to Mars!
A complete report on the activities the Mars Desert Research Station will be presented at the 5th International Mars Society convention, which will be held August 8-11, 2002 at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Mars Desert Research Station - Multimedia links
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Mars Desert Research Station Completes First Crew Rotation
Hanksville - Feb 21, 2002
The first operational crew rotation of the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) has been successfully completed. The MDRS went operational on Feb 7 with a crew of 6. For the past two weeks, the station's crew has been conducting a systematic program of exploration of the surrounding desert, while operating under many of the same constraints as an actual Mars crew.
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