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Like Mars, but with polar bears

Rocket scientists swarm polar desert for a taste of Red Planet



Dr. Pascal Lee can call himself a rocket scientist without cracking a smile.

A researcher with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Pascal is also a certified Mars nut.

And that’s what’s brought him up to Devon Island each year for the last decade, joined by other scientists and space enthusiasts who clamber around the Haughton Crater.

From July 4 to August 9, a crew of about 55 scientists and support staff with the Haughton-Mars Project will camp at the inhospitable swath of polar desert, chosen because it resembles the landscape of the Red Planet.

Well, except for the polar bears, which foiled efforts this winter to grow lettuce inside the automated Arthur C. Clarke Greenhouse — named after the famed author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and funded by the Canadian Space Agency.

The greenhouse is rigged with gadgets that monitor and water the plants — mostly lettuce, with basil, radish and zucchini — automatically.

“The greenhouse this past winter was visited by polar bears,” Lee said as he prepared to board a flight from Iqaluit to Resolute Bay last Thursday. “They knocked a big hole in the side of it.”

This season they’ll give robotic gardening another try, along with other experiments.

The summer camp receives support from NASA, the Canadian Space Institute, the Mars Institute, and SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Life Institute.

Most years these scientists are accompanied by a gaggle of wannabe Mars explorers who spend a month poking around the crater in “sim” — that is, pretending they’re actually on Mars, dressed in space suits and driving souped-up ATVs.

But this year the Mars Society voted against sending their entourage to Devon Island, because they hope to save up cash for an unprecedented four-month expedition next year.

For scientists such as Lee, this summer will be a busy one, wrapping up old experiments and beginning new tests.

They will continue testing an automated drill used to collect rock and soil samples up to five meters below the surface, provided by NASA, for the third and final year.

“Drilling is a hands-on type of activity for humans,” Lee said. “We’re training a robot to do that — a robotic mind.”

Other tests will focus on the people, not the landscape.

The saliva of participants will be collected and analyzed to look for tell-tale enzymes produced under stressful conditions to better understand how the group copes under the pressures of a tight schedule.

And they’ll practice the medical evacuation of an injured astronaut, under the watch of the Mars Institute, the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and the Canadian Space Institute.

The scenario: three spacemen are hiking on the moon when one trips, hurts himself, and is unable to walk.

“How prepared you are for an injury can make or break a mission,” Lee said.

A rescue will be performed with hand winches and a special litter designed to roll over rock and ice, molded to hold a space suit. The injured spaceman will then be loaded onto the MARS-1 Humvee.

Meanwhile, the vitals of the injured man will be watched from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, where a summer space program is held.

“The whole thing will be played out live in France,” he said. “His heart rate will be pulsing in Strasbourg on a screen.”

Their decade of research has also taught them a thing or two about the crater itself.

For instance, last year a study showed the Haughton crater is in fact 38 million years old — rather than 23 million years old, as previously imagined.

And while giant meteors crashing into the planet’s surface are generally seen as bad for evolved creatures, such as humans, these cataclysmic impacts could actually be good for smaller, less-evolved life.

Microbes have been found to thrive in the warmth and shelter found in broken rocks and thermal vents. In fact, Lee said craters could be “central to the origins of life” on Earth.

He also said research on Devon Island could challenge the belief that Mars was once far warmer. The Haughton Crater shows similar thaw and melt patterns as found on Mars can be created in a cold climate, Lee said.

“The wide range of what we see on Mars, we can see on Devon,” he said.

But why explore Mars? Lee said one answer is such an expedition could answer important questions about whether life exists on Mars, which in turn could tell us about the origins of life on Earth.

“Could we be related to life on Mars? These are not just philosophical questions. These are scientific questions,” Lee said.

Not only that. Space exploration could even bring peace on Earth, Lee suggests.

“It will stabilize our relationships on Earth by being involved in a big joint venture,” he said.

The spacey gadgets used on the crater may not seem of immediate importance to many earth-dwellers, other than deadbeat gardeners, but Lee points to a host of inventions produced by the space program.

Take telephone calls and weather forecasts in the North, which both depend on satellites orbiting the Earth to relay information.

The same goes for satellite television, and the sensors used inside digital cameras.

Lee sees a Mars in the future that resembles Antartica, with research stations manned by humans.

“We think it’s eminently feasible to send people to Mars. We just need to do it right,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he always sees eye-to-eye with other Mars enthusiasts.

Lee was involved with the founding of the Mars Institute, although he’s no longer affiliated with it. He says he disagrees with plans to abandon Earth for another planet as unrealistic.

“We need to think beyond the romance,” he said.

“The earth is an exceptional oasis,” he said. “It needs to be understood and protected, not fled.”

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