The Savvy Scientists Exploring Mars
Savvy scientists are preparing for exploration on Mars using some of Earth’s most barren locations
JONATHAN CLARKE HAS BEEN TO MARS. In 2017 the 58-year- old Australian geologist escaped the Canberra winter and instead, for precisely 30 days, explored the surface of the Red Planet. Fortunately, he didn’t have to undertake the arduous 225-million-km journey. Instead Clarke’s more modest 15,000-kilometre excursion to Mars was a virtual one. But, as part of an international six-person Mars Society team at FMARS (Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station) – a mock-up Mars base on Devon Island, deep in the Canadian Arctic – he was able to undertake a level of Martian surface exploration that was breathtakingly realistic.
As president of Mars Society Australia, Clarke is a virtual Mars veteran. As well as his time at FMARS, he’s
done four stints of up to 80 days at the international Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, plus less-simulated trials in outback Australia and a high-altitude cold desert in India. “People have been doing this for centuries, for millennia – going off in small groups to live and work in remote places, exploring the frontier,” Clarke points out. “We’re no different.”
The Mars Society’s frontier is a little different, however. Founded in the US in 1998 and funded largely by donation and sponsorship, the non-profit global network (26 countries have chapters) exists to promote human exploration of Mars.
Not content to wait for official space agencies, members actively advance the know-how they hope will hasten those first human footprints on the Red Planet. The main game is ‘Mars analogue research’ – dress rehearsals of Mars missions to investigate all kinds of operational challenges, including psychological.
The FMARS facility is – like Mars – a remote cold- desert environment. Located on our world’s largest uninhabited island, it’s a bleak treeless expanse of permafrost, rocks and lichen.
Home base is a two-storey fibreglass cylinder, eight metres in height and width. Food is freeze-dried, dehydrated or tinned. Sanitation involves plastic bags and an incinerator. Outside communications mimic Mars restrictions. And venturing outdoors requires faux spacesuits (except for whoever’s riding shotgun for polar bears; luckily none showed up).
“When we go outside to do our work, we do a simulated EVA [extra-vehicular activity] with constant radio contact,” Clarke says. “The spacesuits are basically costumes, but they do isolate you from the environment. They make work two or three times more difficult, and when we go back inside we go through the simulated re-pressurisation procedure. So we do get a good appreciation of the constraints of working on Mars.”
Spacesuit design is a key consideration, for which the Mars Society offers innovative ‘MarsSkin’ outfits. Sleek and flexible, they counteract low- pressure space environments with form-fitting elastic instead of gas inflation, the method used by bulkier traditional spacesuits. The basic concept isn’t new, but the MarsSkin application is a Mars Society Australia creation, trialled in the South Australian desert and now
in its fourth generation of fine-tuning. Other Australian projects in the pipeline include the Starchaser Marsupial rover for driving on Mars, and airborne drones.
Mars-like terrain offers more than the best place to field-test equipment and procedures. Science projects can be tailored to yield Mars-relevant data. Devon Island and Mars share ‘periglacial’ (shaped by freezing and thawing) landscapes with ‘polygon fields’ (distinctively patterned ground). There’s even an ancient impact crater, Haughton, resembling Endeavour Crater on Mars – a possible landing site currently being explored by NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity.
The craters have similar diameters and, although Endeavour is millions of years older, similar degrees of erosion (a much slower process on Mars). “I did two geological projects,” says Clarke. “One on the bedrock geology of the crater rim, and one on mapping techniques in polar permafrost environments.”
Other research was biological. “We were looking at hypoliths, micro-organisms living under rocks in extreme climates. If there’s life on the surface of Mars, it’s going to be in little sheltered environments such as those. And we also looked for past life preserved in gypsum.”
IS THERE, OR WAS THERE, LIFE ON MARS?
For centuries, this question has captured the collective imagination. Hopes run more to microbes than little green men these days, but the answer is still lost in space. Some of the best clues may be in outback Australia, where fossil hot springs have yielded the earliest evidence of life on Earth – and may do the same on Mars, too. Mars Society Australia’s favourite
local site, Arkaroola in South Australia, has good examples, plus plenty of Mars-like landscape for engineering trials and science projects.
“Fossil hot springs are a very important target on Mars,” Clarke says, adding that studying Earth’s modern hot springs is also important. “They contain extremophiles, organisms that tolerate extreme temperatures, acidity, extreme alkalinity and so on – conditions we might find on other planets. Extremophiles are very interesting to astrobiologists.”
Arkaroola even has mildly radioactive hot springs hosting microbes with radiation- tolerant genes – a handy attribute for life on Mars, where the atmosphere is too thin to shield against cosmic rays.
Mars certainly has much to offer an extremophile – apart from radiation, there’s a deadly (95 per cent carbon dioxide) atmosphere, no liquid water, one-third of our gravity, less than one per cent of our surface air pressure and an average temperature below inland Antarctica’s.
Yet it’s still our most Earth- like planetary neighbour, topping the space-travel bucket list ever since Neil Armstrong’s one small lunar step in 1969. Back then NASA intended landing a crew on Mars by 1986, but the US timeframe is now the 2030s.
So far, only robotic probes have visited Mars. Around 50 have been launched since 1960. Eight are still operational: six in Mars orbit (three US, two European, one Indian) and two (US) roving the surface. The rover Opportunity has been sending back data since 2004, but it’s an exception. The high failure rate of unmanned Mars missions – more than half crashed, missed the target or otherwise malfunctioned – highlights the risk of sending people so far out.
Those risks go beyond engineering issues. “A typical Mars mission would take about six months to get there, 18 months on the surface and six months coming home,” Clarke says. Crews will face unheard-of isolation. The potential for the worst bout of cabin fever in human history is obvious.
Clearly, it’s vital, Clarke says, that crews “work hard, support each other and get along well”. Mars Society missions have long monitored the psychology of group dynamics in remote, restricted environments.
“We understand now how a lot of this works,” Clarke adds. “You need to select the right skills, the right personalities, the right level of emotional intelligence – and also a group that will mutually help. If people are going to be months or years in an extremely isolated environment, they have got to be friends, be like family. They can’t simply be colleagues or potential competitors.”
Despite arduous fieldwork and challenging weather, Clarke found himself “rather sad” to leave FMARS. The crew bonded well – “like family”, and “we were just getting into our stride, building confidence in the terrain, our skills and our equipment to carry out longer and longer EVAs into the crater.”
Closer to home, Clarke hopes an analogue station planned for South Australia’s Arkaroola – Mars- Oz – will be operational one day. Meanwhile he’s pleased that the two North American stations have given more than a thousand people a taste of what working on Mars might be like.
The Mars Society’s credibility is sky-high. “Many members of the US society work for NASA,” Clarke points out. “A number of NASA research projects have run at the stations – a hydroponics project, drilling equipment tests, field robotics trials. It’s a facility they can use.”
And one that, the Mars Society hopes, will help the Red Planet finally gain a firm green light for human visitation. “We’re reaching a point, if we haven’t already, where robotic exploration will be delivering diminished returns,” Clarke says.
“While very useful, it’s limited. It’s a bit like trying to get an appreciation for Thailand purely on the basis of postcards. If we’re going to be serious about space exploration, people going is what it’s all about. It’s the next step.”
Dr Jonathan Clarke
On inhospitable Devon Island, researchers simulate missions to Mars
Clarke and space journalist Anastasiya Stepanova conduct field research; Mars