So near, so Mars

Year-long mission to simulate being on Mars tested humans' ability to survive life on the red planet
HI SEAS Mars Hawaii simulation An "astronaut" performs a task outside during the recent year-long simulation of a Mars mission. (HI-SEAS/C. Heinicke)

When the movie The Martian came out last year, it got a lot of people thinking: You know, that doesn't seem so impossible...

In the film, Matt Damon's character is an astronaut trapped on Mars with little hope of rescue. To survive, he uses ingenious, but simple, methods to trap water and grow his own food on the dry, desolate planet. But that was just a movie, not real events.

Similarly, a year-long simulation of a mission to Mars isn’t the same as a real mission to Mars. (A simulation is literally an imitation of a real life situation or environment.) But that doesn't mean that a good simulaton can't teach us a lot. That's why so many scientists are thrilled by the Martian experiment that just finished this week on the remote Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. Run by HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), experts believe it's some of the best proof yet that human beings could comfortably survive the real thing.

Life on Mars.

Strict rules, few showers

HI SEAS Mars Hawaii simulation
The dome was powered by solar panels, just as an actual Mars mission would be. (HI-SEAS/C. Heinicke)
In order for the mission to work, the six "astronauts" had to feel and act like they were on the real Mars as much as possible. They lived in strict isolation inside a sealed two-story geodesic dome. (This is a half-sphere with a structure formed by many smaller triangular frames.) There was very little contact with the outside world (they even had to miss out on things like friend's wedding or births in their extended family). They had to conserve water, and could only shower once a month (they used Febreze spray and paper towels to stay "fresh" in between). They even had to wear spacesuits whenever they left the dome to go outside...even though "outside" was full of perfectly breathable Earth atmosphere.

HI SEAS Mars Hawaii simulation
The kitchen inside the dome. Pretty cozy, no? (HI-SEAS/Sian)
That kind of discipline was the only way that they could know that the same techniques would work on Mars. That means that when the bathroom malfunctioned, they had to bathe with buckets. And it also meant that each astronaut had to find ways to not go crazy as they were stuck inside a relatively tiny dome with the same five other people for a whole year. This kind of uneasy feeling is called cabin fever, and it's a real issue. The "astronauts" turned to reading, dancing, and dice games as some activities to address their boredom.

Why Hawaii?

HI SEAS Mars Hawaii simulation
The dome at sunrise. (HI-SEAS/Sheyna Gifford)
There another interesting angle to this whole story. If Mars is so dry and desolate and barren...why are people being sent to Hawaii to pretend that they're living there? Isn't Hawaii this lush tropical paradise filled with fruits and rain and surf and exotic animals? Well, it is, generally. But areas like the high volcanic plateaus of Muana Loa are very different to the popular image of Hawaii. They are, well, dry and desolate and barren. They're even full of the same kind of reddish rock that covers Mars.

Of course, it is still Hawaii. That's why Andrzej Stewart, HI-SEAS' chief engineering officer, admits that the astronauts need to "suspend disbelief a little bit to really get the full experience.” Because that's what it really is all about: trying to create an environment where human beings can learn whether or not they could really deal with the stresses of life on another world. HI-SEAS is going to hold two more eight-month long simulations over the next two years to improve on what they've already learned. When the time comes to actually travel to Mars, you can bet that humans will be ready.

Just don't forget to pack those books and some favourite dancing shoes! In the meanwhile, welcome back to "Earth", you "Martians"!

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  1. So cool! I would probably find it realy hard to do that for a year!!! 😀 however it sounds realy fun 😀 😀 😀 😀

  2. That is so cool I wonder what it would be like to go on Mars ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

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