Mars Desert Research Station Simulates Mars Like Base

By Michael Horton •  Updated: 01/18/09 •  4 min read

A world with a surface area the size of the combined continents of the Earth, the Red Planet contains all the elements needed to support life. As such it is the Rosetta stone for revealing whether the phenomenon of life is something unique to the Earth, or prevalent in the universe.

The exploration of Mars may also tell us whether life, as we find it on Earth, is the model for life elsewhere, or whether we are just a small part of a much vaster and more varied tapestry. Moreover, as the nearest planet with all the required resources for technological civilization, Mars will be the decisive trial that will determine whether humanity can expand from its globe of origin to enjoy the open frontiers and unlimited prospects available to multi-planet spacefaring species.

Offering profound enlightenment to our science, inspiration, and purpose to our youth, and a potentially unbounded future for our posterity, the challenge of Mars is one that we must embrace.

Simulated Martian Habitat

Placing humans on Mars will be an extraordinary feat in itself, not to mention even living in such a harsh environment. To help train future astronauts to sustain life on Mars, the Mars Society has created the Mars Desert Research Station. The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is one of four planned simulated Mars habitats (or Mars Analogue Research Station Programme) maintained by the Mars Society.

The station is in the San Rafael Swell of Utah. It is 7 miles from Hanksville, Utah, four miles west along State Route 24, and about three miles north on a dirt road. It is the second such research station to be built, after the completion of the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island in the Arctic in 2000.

The project’s goals are to develop field tactics based on environmental constraints (ie, being required to work in spacesuits), to test habitat design features and tools, and to assess crew selection protocols. While much warmer than Mars, the desert location is optimal because of its Mars-like terrain and appearance.

A Room Of One’s Own?

Crews sign up for two-week shifts during the winter months (it’s too hot in the summer for pleasant simulation). Crews are not paid during their time at the station but do get valuable experience.

The crews usually consist of a mix of astronomers, physicists, biologists, geologists, engineers, and the occasional journalist to see what Mars life might be like. The “campus” consists of three buildings currently; the habitat, the greenhab, and the observatory.

The habitat is an implementation of a Mars Habitat Unit. Specifically, it is a two-story cylinder on its end about 30 feet in diameter.

On the first floor, there are two airlocks, two bathrooms, a room for the space suits, and a combined lab and work area. On the second floor are six rooms with bunks and a combined common area kitchen. The sleeping area is very claustrophobic but you do get a bunk of your own. Each bunk has a hard-surface sleeping area and a couple of shelves for personal belongings.

The Greenhab

The greenhab is a greenhouse used for plants to grow food and produce oxygen. It is a cylinder on its side about 15 feet in diameter. One half is used as a storage area and a location for plants used in some experiments. The other half is taken up by a greywater recycling system.

The observatory houses a 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, donated by Celestron. The telescope is capable of being operated remotely, and is accessible to amateur and professional astronomers via the internet.

Perhaps utilizing a “base” here on Earth which simulates what it might be like with a campus on Mars, scientists will be able to discover things that may have not been thought of in advance before we make the long journey to the red planet.

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