Mars 160: simulating life on the red planet

06 Oct 2016

Author: Myles Gough

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A pair of Australians have left their friends, family and most of their possessions behind for an otherworldly adventure. For 160 days, geologist Dr Jonathan Clarke and artist Annalea Beattie will live like human settlers on Mars, helping humanity prepare for its first mission to the Red Planet.
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Doctor Jonathan Clarke, a former research scientist, and artist Annalea Beattie are directors of Mars Society Australia. On 24 September 2016 they joined a simulated planetary exploration program called Mars 160 at the Mars Desert Research Station in the US state of Utah. 

The pair are part of a seven-person crew from Canada, India, France, Japan, Russia and the US that will conduct a sustained program of geological, paleontological and micro-biological field exploration for 80 days while operating under many of the same constraints that human explorers on the Red Planet would face. 

The same crew will reconvene in mid-2017 and spend another 80 days at the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station, located on Devon Island in northern Canada. 

Clarke is no stranger to simulated space missions. He’s been to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah four times and the Pilbara in Western Australia to test a NASA-designed space suit. Earlier this year he visited a cold desert in Ladakh in the far north of India, some 5,000 metres above sea level as part of NASA’s Spaceward Bound program. 

It was the Space Race and science fiction novels that triggered Clarke’s childhood fascination with Mars, but it was trips to the central Australian outback as a young scientist that kept it bubbling. 

“It’s very easy walking across the red landscape, to strip away the vegetation in your imagination, and to see the Red Planet,” he says. “You can imagine yourself there. Through projects like this we’re not just imagining a mission to Mars. We’re creating a body of knowledge that will allow our childrens’ generation to actually go there.”  

Clarke’s colleague, Annalea Beattie, also credits the Australian wilderness for her fascination with otherworldly environments. Born near the fringe of Tasmania’s rugged southwest, the artist recalls gazing with wonder at the night sky. “I have always had a big interest in the universe – a strong sense of life in other places,” she says. 

Preparing for human missions to Mars

Private organisations and space agencies alike are currently planning human missions to Mars. In September 2016, Elon Musk, founder of American aerospace company SpaceX, announced an ambitious plan to transport humans to the Red Planet on next-generation SpaceX rockets by 2025. NASA’s timeline is post-2030.

The success of these trips will largely depend on the data from analogue programs like Mars 160. Simulations provide a safe, cost-effective way to prepare and problem-solve. They can be used to trial new technologies such as spacesuits and vehicle designs, optimise research and survival strategies, and to study and mitigate risk factors, including the psychological and physiological toll that isolation and extreme environments can have on humans.

Mars 160 will test how the same crew operates and performs in two radically different environments – one hot and rocky, the other cold and glacial. The Arctic has permafrost, which is found in most areas on Mars, and the research station is situated in a deep impact crater Clarke believes the desert in Utah is a closer match visually and geologically to the Martian surface. 

The program’s objective is to improve the validity of future simulations, but it will also help narrow down a potential landing spot on Mars. “Our research will inform what can be reasonably expected of human explorers,” says Clarke. “Will they be able to climb up steep slopes if we land in a deep crater? Or does the landing site have to be flat as a pancake?” 

Clarke says the mission is also unique among simulations because the crew will be constantly working in conjunction with a support team of collaborators ‘on the ground’. 

Searching for signs of life

Each day, the Mars 160 crew will conduct extra-vehicular activities, leaving the safety of their Mars habitat and travelling by foot or quad bike to sites of interest. They will be doing field studies, sampling and analysing different rocks, searching for plant and animal fossils, and trying to uncover traces of microbial life. 

Clarke will be looking at gypsum deposits. These salty white minerals, commonly used to manufacture plaster, are known to be present on Mars and are excellent at preserving microfossils. 

He will also be searching for stromatolites. These layered, cauliflower-shaped structures are created by single-celled microbes called cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae), which trap particles of sediments. Clarke says these formations are a strong indicator of microbial life. “It would be headline news if we found one on Mars,” he says.

Art in the extremes of outer space 

A visual artist, poet and writing teacher, Annalea Beattie brings a different perspective to the mission. “My interest is not so much on the science, but of humans living in confined and isolated spaces,” she says. 

Beattie will document research activities by drawing field maps – which she hopes will bolster data collection – and help crew members improve their sketching. She believes artwork will play a vital role in future Mars missions and colonies, helping people make sense of their experiences in unfamiliar terrain, and build social cohesion. 

“In a colourless world, full of sensory deprivation, where you can take one step outside the airlock and be dead in a second, art provides a space for people to keep their imaginations alive and to explore in a different way,” she says. 

Over the course of the 160-day mission, Beattie will also be capturing images of the night sky, making lumen prints of lichens, plants and fossils, and blogging about her experiences for the popular news website Space.com. 

The Australian perspective 

Future missions will require international collaboration and Clarke believes Australia is well-positioned to make a significant contribution. 
 
“I think it will be a great adventure, and it’s an amazing privilege to be part of the group doing this,” he says. “We all want to be able to contribute to the goal of seeing humans on Mars.”