Desert research centre in Utah serves as stand-in for Mars3 min read

Four people wearing space helmets and square backpacks emerge from a circular structure resembling a water tank and step onto a reddish, barren landscape.

One hikes up a hill to take magnetic readings of the ground with a rectangular apparatus that looks like a large levelling tool. Another pushes a wheelbarrow equipped with sensors arrayed in a zig-zag pattern.

For a group of six Belgian college students, it’s just another simulated day on Mars.

This rocky corner of Utah bears such a resemblance to the red planet that it’s become a hot spot for scientists and engineers to run imaginary missions to Earth’s neighbour. They’ve been coming here for more than a decade, hoping their research someday helps put humans on the Martian surface.

This site and others that allow crews to mimic interplanetary missions are helping to raise buzz about Mars to an all-time high as advancements in science and engineering convince space enthusiasts that the 140-million-mile (225-million kilometre) trip is a realistic possibility in this century.

The research centre is run by the non-profit Mars Society, an advocacy group that believes getting people to Mars to be the great challenge of our time. The group is not affiliated with NASA or the federal government.

“What we are doing on Mars is beginning humanity’s career as a space-faring species, a multi-planet species,” said Robert Zubrin, Mars Society director. “This is about extending the human reach from one world to many worlds.”

On May 5, the third annual Humans to Mars Summit kicks off in Washington with about 800 attendees expected and as many as a quarter million more watching webcasts, said Chris Carberry, executive director of the organization that puts on the summit, Explore Mars Inc.

“There’s never been so much support for sending humans to Mars,” said Carberry, who remembers congressional staffers rolling their eyes when he pitched the idea in the late 1990s while working for the Mars Society.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden said recently in a congressional hearing that the space agency’s plan is to get people to Mars in the 2030s.

Private companies are trying to beat NASA by getting people there first. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, plans to unveil concepts for Mars colonization later this year. Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, has also discussed a trip to Mars.

The Belgian students are the 153rd group in the last 14 years to travel to this outpost for a two-week mission.

Like other groups, each person fills a role that the Mars Society believes will be integral to a real mission. There is a commander, sub-commander, astronomer, geologist, biologist, journalist and engineer/mechanic.

The teams hold close to the most important rule of the mission: Simulate everything as authentically as possible. They never go outside without space helmets. When entering and leaving, they wait several minutes in a fake decompression room between the outside door and inside of the habitat. At least one person must always stay behind in case something goes wrong, and they never go outside alone. They cook with freeze-dried foods or other dry goods.

The training helps illustrate the logistical and emotional issues that a Mars mission would confront, he said.

The Colorado-based Mars Society first built an Arctic training station in 2000 on Devon Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut but soon realized it was logistically cumbersome to get crews there.

That triggered a search for a desert site in the American Southwest. The site in Utah was chosen because it looks like Mars and was reasonably close to airports. Located just outside the tiny community of Hanksville, the site is a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City.

More than 900 people have participated in missions in Utah, coming from all over the world, including Russia, Romania, Australia and Japan. One in 5 work for NASA, Zubrin said.

The Utah training site isn’t the only place to simulate Mars missions.

Last summer, a crew of six scientists spent four months atop a volcano in Hawaii. Several years ago, six foreign researchers spent 520 days in a locked steel capsule in Moscow during a mock flight to Mars.


Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

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