Mars project puts greenhouse on Devon Island

Crater dwellers endure excess of bad weather, mud and spaghetti


Nunavut’s own wannabe Mars explorers are back on Devon Island, poking around the Haughton Crater in space suits and souped-up ATVs.

And if you want to see why gardening in Nunavut is like gardening on Mars, you won’t want to miss descriptions and photos of the greenhouses they’re building on Devon Island.

The first greenhouse, already up and running, is the pet project of a group of Mars enthusiasts and scientists with the Haughton-Mars Project, a yearly field camp that receives support from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, the Mars Institute and the SETI Institute.

According to the project’s web site at seedlings have sprouted in the Arthur C. Clarke greenhouse, named after the famed science fiction writer and author of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Currently, the team has two sets of growth trays prepared: the first set is sown with vegetables and includes lettuce, radishes, basil and zucchini. You can watch them grow on a webcam set up in the greenhouse. Another set of trays has the same assortment, but seeds aren’t supposed to germinate until next spring.

“The greenhouse runs through the fall, is dormant (sleep mode) during the winter and is brought back online in the spring from our remote command operations centre at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC,” says the website.

This summer, yet another group of aspiring astronauts are camped out in the “Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station,” a white, barrel-like structure teetering at the edge of the crater. The “crew” of this mock habitat, a group chosen from volunteers around the world, is mid-way through its four-week “rotation” in the station – the third team to spend their summer there.

Last week, Andy Wegener, a crew scientist, donned a space suit to grade a spot for a possible greenhouse. Under full “sim conditions,” that is, as he pretended to be on Mars, a six-foot square of ground was selected 25 feet east of the station’s back airlock.

“Simple hand tools were used to separate the rock from the soil,” reads the log.

The objectives of this exercise? To study soil and rock conditions, evaluate the plot’s suitability as a greenhouse construction site and judge “suit systems durability under such physical labor conditions.” And you thought gardening was hard in Iqaluit?

Major problems encountered this summer by the crater dwellers include the weather (bad), mud (sticky), spaghetti (too much) and the lack of e-mail.

Flashline Mars crew member Tiffany Vora writes how she is trying hard to pretend she’s on Mars.

“Now that we’re officially in simulation mode, I find myself trying to think in terms of a mission to Mars as often as possible. Yesterday I was caught checking my watch by reaching up under my sleeve to see the face, a motion that I perform every day. But I can’t do that here, and I promise myself that I won’t do things like that in the future.”

The crew in the Flashline station can only send email once a day, receive email once a day and never surf the web.

“I think of Shackleton’s men, or men on any of the old expeditions, who sent and received nothing, sometimes for years on end,” she writes. “I wonder how it will feel to have the transfer times [for messages] stretch longer and longer as the vehicle leaves the Earth’s neighborhood [for Mars], and if that sensation will be more or less acute than watching our blue planet recede into the distance.”

You can wait and see and in the meantime follow the adventures of Nunavut’s Mars team on the Web.

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