The Savvy Sci­en­tists Ex­plor­ing Mars

Savvy sci­en­tists are pre­par­ing for ex­plo­ration on Mars us­ing some of Earth’s most bar­ren lo­ca­tions

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY DAVID LEVELL

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

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