We’ve had a change in the weather and another small taste of human stressors at the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) on Devon Island in the Arctic.
When we got here it was sunny with temperatures in the 40s and 50s, and we got used to that. “Look at that landscape!” one of us would say. “How Martian!” another would add, and that was it. But it was Mars-like in the comfort of a one-Earth gravity environment, with a breathable atmosphere and ambient temperatures of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius).
Today we woke up to what can be considered more typical Martian weather. Strong wind all night, and cold. It was about 1.6 C with 30 mph (48 km/h) winds; with wind cooling, it is well below freezing.
Related: Mars: Everything you need to know about the red planet
Rod Pyle is a space historian and author who has created and offered leadership and innovation training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Rod has received endorsements and recognition from the outgoing Deputy Administrator of NASA, the Johnson Space Center’s Chief Knowledge Officer for his work.
Mind you, there are plenty of people in Minnesota and other places more civilized than this who will denounce me as a whiner, and I don’t disagree, but for this SoCal town, it’s cold here. Add to that the constant, fine windblown sand that comes from the floor of the Von Braun Planitia (the broad, silty valley floor that extends away from the bottom of the bluff on which the Haughton-Mars Project base sits), and the wide-open terrain that makes it so. do not prevent the wind at all, and you have a conspiracy of freezing cold.
All of this is a reminder, despite these temporary conditions, of how well adapted to the earth we all are. We are children of this planet; we evolved under the tyranny of one gravity and with the joy of 14 pounds per square inch of breathable atmosphere. It’s the environment we were bred for. It is unique in the solar system, and so far, from what we have observed, possibly unique in our area of the galaxy. So any discomfort we feel here, while instructive, is absolutely child’s play compared to the harsh reality of other planets.
It wasn’t that long ago that the solar system was a kinder and gentler place. I am old enough to remember a time before Mariner 4 sailed past Mars in 1965; our perception of the other terrestrial planets, as they evolved, was still blissfully naive. The ideas of astronomers such as Percival Lowell had fought to survive into the second half of the 20th century, but the prevailing idea of Mars as a cooler, gloomy twin for Earth, and Venus as a tropical doppelganger for our planet, died hard. Telescopic and radar observations killed off the idea of ”sister planets,” but science fiction writers and filmmakers could still push the idea, without too much stress, that we would one day walk around Mars in polar suits with an oxygen tank to augment our breathing – “Not much different than climbing Mount Everest,” as some armchair scientists opined.
Oh, how wrong we were.
When Mariner 4 whizzed past Mars on July 15, 1965, the Martian empire of Ray Bradbury’s fever dreams was finally crushed into red dust. When the data was evaluated, Mars was revealed to have an atmosphere roughly 1/100 the density of Earth’s, and it was so rich in CO2 that it was unbreathable in any case. As successive mariners reconnoitred the Red Planet, and the two Viking landers had completed their first months of service at Chryse Planitia and Utopia Planitia, we began to understand that the surface was bathed in deadly radiation and that the soil was probably filled with deadly peroxides. The romantic notion that we had a nearby, almost twin world that could provide us with a second home fell into interplanetary distance.
Cut to 2022. We’ve now had well over a dozen missions to Mars, currently have our sixth rover exploring the surface (including China’s Zhurong), and receive continuous reports of surface weather and conditions around the planet. We know how hostile Mars is to human life (and don’t even get me started on Venus!), and what it takes to survive there.
GET CAPTURED WITH A MONTH OF MARCH:
While places like the Haughton-Mars Project don’t perfectly model the Earth chemistry, intense radiation, lower gravity, or thin atmosphere of Mars, there is still great value in the work being done here. The geology of the region strongly resembles Mars, as does the terrain that hosts it.
According to Mars Institute planetary scientist and HMP creator Pascal Lee, these may point to a cold and icy climate history for Mars – a notion that is somewhat at odds with current thinking. Methods for traversing the Martian surface, using spacesuits and robots, collecting samples, doing basic on-site analysis, and other experiments. Increasingly, aerial exploration methods such as NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter are being evaluated with promising results. The more you can learn on Earth, the less you will have to learn on Mars, saving effort, money and possibly lives.
As Michael Hecht, the principal investigator of the MOXIE ISRU experiment aboard the Perseverance Mars rover once told me, “Many technology demonstrations are doomed to succeed on Earth,” and by extension to fail in space. Testing anything that can be tested on Earth, in a place like Devon Island, will smooth the journey when it comes.
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