The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (Hi-SEAS) Habitat is located on the slopes of Mauna Loa on Hawaii’s Big Island. Mount Loa is a volcano that displays similar topographic and climatic characteristics to Mars – hot and not much there! Six volunteers have spent the past four months living in this NASA-approved simulation, learning and preparing for a possible future life on Mars.
The two-storey, 30-metre dome comprises all general household amenities, and a research laboratory. The international crew included a biologist, a psychologist, a physicist, a chemist and an aerospace engineer.
The only time that we could exit the dome was to simulate extra-vehicular activity … like a moonwalk wearing spacesuits that were designed to simulate those that would be required for a Mars mission” says mission Commander, Casey Stedman.
Of course, there are limits to the simulation. Gravity on Mars is just 38% of Earth’s gravity. The length of a day on Mars is 24.6 hours, but one year – a full orbit around the sun – is equivalent to 687 Earth days. Temperatures do vary and create four separate seasons, but the minimum temperate reaches -87°C. Travelling to Mars is estimated to take approximately nine months. While the Hi-SEAS camp was able to construct fixed communication lines with Earth, communication over the 56 to 401 million kilometres to Mars is considerably more difficult.
Rovers have been sent to explore Mars, but no human has visited Mars yet. Proposals for a manned mission to Mars within the next 20 years have been made, and the Hi-SEAS team have been working to understand the requirements for human life on Mars. The main aim of the current study was analysing two food systems – pre-prepared individual items and something like cooking, except with freeze dried meats and produce – to see how items rate in energy use, crew satisfaction and other variables. Various other research projects have aimed to replicate analogous circumstances to life on Mars, so that researchers can begin to understand and plan for the challenges surrounding long-term life in space.
There are currently five functioning space craft on Mars, namely the Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Exploration, Rover Opportunity and the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity.
Observations by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed possible flowing water during the warmest months on Mars. In 2013, NASA’s Curiosity rover discovered that Mars’ soil contains between 1.5% and 3% water by mass.
NASA has already approved three additional Hi-SEAS studies of four, eight and twelve-month durations that will investigate more sensitive subjects such as crew cohesion and psychology.
nterestingly, many people are very excited about the prospect of living on Mars. In 2012, Dutch entrepreneur Bas Landsdorp launched a global campaign called Mars One, inviting people to apply for a one-way mission to Mars that would be funded by a reality TV show. Over 200,000 enthusiastic people applied and there are still over 700 candidates within the selection phase, including 28 Australians. After paying an application fee and successfully completing four rounds of the selection phase, 40 candidates will undergo full training. The TV audience will then vote for the final four – two men and two women – who will bid farewell to Earth and travel on a one-way trip to their new life on Mars. Others have raised concerns about the programme, including safety risks, lack of scientific research and the notion of attempted exile from society.
The NASA-approved approach being carried out in Hawaii looks to be on surer footings.