Space Cadet School: Months In The Arctic Simulates Living On Mars

Aug 24, 2007 (09:08 AM EDT)

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Seven student crew members just completed a 101-day simulated trip to Mars, designed to help prepare for future space exploration.

The Mars Society's Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station crew left Devon Island in the high Canadian Arctic this week and announced that they had successfully completed all of their missions. Seven science and engineering students -- four Canadians and three Americans, -- completed what is being described as the longest simulated Mars mission.

The expedition, supported in part by NASA's Spaceward Bound program and the Canadian Space Agency, studied how people would react to difficult living conditions and what happens when permafrost warms. The students are still analyzing their data, but initial results indicate that the most difficult thing for the seven crew members living together was adjusting to Mars time.

Days on Mars are about 40 minutes longer than Earth days. The Arctic summer's 24-hours of daylight allowed the crew to operate on Mars time.

"You can define day and night any way you want," said Chris McKay, principal investigator of NASA's Spaceward Bound program at the Ames Research Center in California, in an interview. "This was a high-fidelity operation on a Mars day cycle and it was the first time it was ever done. You could do it in a lab using artificial light, but in a lab you're not doing anything real. You're just being guinea pigs. It's only possible to do it with field work in a polar region in the summer."

Crew members simply covered the windows of their hub from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. each day. Though some crew members had difficulty adjusting their sleep schedules, other said they never slept more soundly. Many, however, reported increased hunger that came from adding 40 minutes of productivity to their days. Due to the time difference, their 101 Earth days added up to 100 Mars days.

"Some took to it naturally," McKay said. "Some took a long time to adjust to it. What struck me was that there are differences in people's ability to respond naturally to different cycles. The most common statement I heard was that they got hungry. They were up an extra 40 minutes a day and their bodies are metabolizing, doing extra work but not getting extra food. So, there was a mismatch between nutrition and effort. It took a while to figure out and adjust to it."

As the science leader, McKay spent a couple of weeks in the vicinity, staying at a nearby camp and visiting with the crew members, who performed field work to study the warming of permafrost. Not surprisingly, they found that life is dormant until thawing occurs. Once their laptops crunch all the data, it will be used to study global warming and its impacts. They will also be used to study past life on Mars, which is covered by permafrost and experiences warming cycles.

"The best place to search is frozen in permafrost on Mars," McKay said, adding that the Arctic fieldwork and samples are likely to provide insight into how long life is preserved, as well as preferred methods for extracting samples and preserving evidence.

Crew members reported that they managed to get along well with each other and remain friends by taking breaks, retreating to private areas, designating quiet times, and airing differences right away. Their experience is likely to help the students participate in future space exploration programs, McKay said.

"Who knows if they'll go on to become astronauts?" McKay asked. "They are all committed to going on to space exploration on some level. This will give them valuable experience."

McKay compared the experience to managing race cars and their drivers.

"If you're a race car manager, you'd like to have had some experience driving the cars," he explained. "If they become managers of future space program, and not astronauts, it's good for them to know what it's like."

Crew members included: Commander Melissa Battler, Executive Officer Matt Bamsey, Chief Engineer James Harris, Chief Scientist Kim Binsted, Human Factors Researcher Ryan Kobrick, Crew Biologist Kathryn Bywaters and Crew Geologist Simon Auclair.

The crew members experienced gravity, since there is gravity on Mars. They communicated through e-mail and Web site postings because instant messaging and VoIP are not yet possible on Mars.

"On Mars it takes two to 20 minutes to get a signal from one planet to another," he said. "So, they would typically send me and a-mail and I wouldn't get a chance to look at it for a few hours anyway."

More trips are planed for next year. This November, student crews will go to the desert in Utah for training that is more focused on living in a space environment. Participants will include navigation and other skills that are expected to help explorers find their way around a foreign planet.

"It's like Space Cadet School, but for real," McKay said.