Space Mission Simulations in Southern Utah

Southern Utah’s lunar-esque desert landscape seems tailor-made for Hollywood blockbusters, while also serving as an arena where some of the brightest minds in space simulation try out ideas about what life may be like on Mars.

Near Hanksville lies the Mars Desert Research Station. This remote plot of land serves as an analogue of Mars where researchers test equipment and train astronauts.

The Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station

Southern Utah’s rugged red landscapes may be familiar from your grandpa’s John Wayne westerns or your favorite sci-fi movies, from skiable slopes in the north to climbable slickrock of Capitol Reef National Park – they range from calm and beautiful to unsettlingly alien – making southern Utah an ideal place to simulate an astronaut mission to Mars.

The Mars Desert Research Station, or MDRS, can be found nestled into the Bentonite Hills near Hanksville and surrounded by terrain that resembles that found on Mars. As one of four simulated Mars habitats on Earth operated by the nonprofit Mars Society, volunteers live and work at this site for one week at a time conducting futuristic research related to biotechnology, geology and robotics.

This week, MDRS 238 — the second MDRS crew based at this facility this year — are conducting 14 different experiments. These range from testing how well humans communicate in remote, isolated environments to investigating plant cultivation techniques in harsh conditions; to monitoring solar activity at their new observatory named after Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk called the Musk Observatory.

All this research is meant to equip scientists for an actual trip to Mars. Scientists are learning more about potential hazards associated with an expedition there – cold, dust and other issues could hinder an expedition’s mission; firsthand experience has taught them to always plan a backup plan when entering new habitats.

Mars Society Executive Director James Burk reports that his group conducts its simulated Mars missions in areas like southern Utah – known as a “Mars analog” due to its terrain and climate similarities – which serves as a good representation of Mars. Their aim is to demonstrate the need for what he refers to as “Plan B,” should Earth no longer provide life support systems for humanity.

MDRS’ mission extends far beyond just training scientists and engineers for an eventual journey to Mars; MDRS also serves to prepare crews who might eventually visit. Burk says making the simulation as real as possible is critical for this mission – no visitor should wander aimlessly around their facilities, curiously peeking in to see what it all entails.

The Mars Society is looking for volunteers to join its next crew in October; applications close June of 2020 so don’t delay! For more information on this story visit their website and/or KUER’s Amanda Heidt who contributed this report.

The Mars Society’s Mars Analog

The Mars Society operates two research stations: Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) and Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS). MDRS is a prototype research centre located on rugged Mars-like terrain of Utah desert, hosting more than 300 high-fidelity mission simulations since 2001 when its first crew arrived. It features two-story habitat, research lab, greenhouse and various observatories; FMARS serves as an additional temporary second habitat nearby MDRS to create dual habitat scenario where different teams can collaborate under similar challenging conditions.

Human missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond require humans to gain a better understanding of life in space. Analog missions – field tests that simulate space travel and exploration challenges–can provide this invaluable knowledge.

Master Sgt. Nicholas Pender was part of Crew 220 – an experiment to test medical procedures and communications in dual habitat settings as well as explore and collect data for future space missions. The mission took place from March 4-15th 2018 at Hanksville in Utah’s Mars Desert Research Station and tested medical procedures and communications. Known for this expedition was testing medical procedures as well as communications using two habitats.

Scientists have for years staked their claims in southern Utah, one of Earth’s most Mars-like places. Red rock deserts reminiscent of old John Wayne westerns can be found there while Capitol Reef National Park provides stark beauty that Hollywood directors use when creating alien worlds in movies like 2012’s John Carter. But these landscapes offer more than scenic beauty; researchers use them as places where geologic similarities may provide clues as to the possibility of life on Mars.

Robert Zubrin was a dissatisfied engineer when the Mars Society first got started, becoming convinced in the early 1990s that an expedition directly to Mars was possible and long overdue. To advocate for his cause he published books like The Case for Space and Entering Space which addressed common political and technological criticisms as they persisted.

The Mars Society has made tremendous strides toward sending people to Mars over time by developing its infrastructure for future missions. Members have created prototype research centres resembling Mars analogue environments where scientists and engineers can experience what life on the Red Planet might be like by living alone, operating robots or rovers remotely and communicating with Mission Control – these facilities will play a crucial role in developing protocols, training methods and technologies necessary to reach it successfully.

In 2020, The Mars Society plans to build a new Mars Data Retrieval System facility on Devon Island in Canada’s Hudson Bay – an ideal spot for testing technologies humans may use on Mars. It will feature larger habitat and research capabilities with room for both manned and unmanned missions to be hosted there. In addition, other institutions will partner with us in building another similar site in Europe.

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