Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Finding Mars on Earth


Someday, maybe early in the next decade, human astronauts will emerge from a Mars lander to explore the Red Planet and find answers to life's mysteries. Until then, Devon Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavit may be the closest thing to Mars that we'll find on Earth.

At 450 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the eastern portion of Devon Island is covered in ice year-round; the western part is mostly polar desert--cold, arid plains and valleys carved out by ancient glaciers. In the center of the island lies its unique feature--the 20-kilometer-wide, partially eroded crater of a major meteoroid impact that occurred some 23 million years ago: Haughton Crater.

The Science of Haughton Crater

Haughton Crater was surveyed in the 1970s and 1980s and periodically visited afterwards, but in 1997 a National Research Council research associate, Pascal Lee, presented a proposal to investigate the impact geology of the crater and the surrounding area with an emphasis on its similarities to Mars. Beginning in 1998, Lee has visited Haughton each summer for two-and-a-half months of research and exploration as part of the NASA Haughton Mars Project (HMP), a multidisciplinary field-research program that supports the human exploration of Mars.

From left to right, Lt. Col. John Blitch, Cathrine Frandsen, Brent Bos, and Robert Zubrin prepare simulated EVA testing combined human-robot exploration at Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station. A U.S. Army telerobot is on Blitch's ATV.

Because of its location in the desert high Arctic, many features of the Haughton Crater are well preserved, revealing the complexities of the meteorite's path through layers of sedimentary rock into a base of gneiss nearly 2 kilometers below. On the crater floor, substantial deposits of sedimentary rubble and shocked crystals of gneiss are mixed with ice in a permafrost region that makes Haughton Crater theoretically analogous to impact craters on Mars. The crater offers an ideal opportunity to study the underlying geology of the area as well as an opportunity to search for signs of life, both as exposed fossils in the sedimentary rock and as microbial colonies inhabiting the many porous rocks created by the impact.

Other features of Devon Island--the ice- and water-carved channels and valleys, frozen lakes, and retreating eastern glaciers--are similar either to present features on Mars or to features from its past. By studying the geology and biology of these places, HMP scientists hope to learn details that will assist human explorers on Mars.

And they are scientifically productive in their own right, according to Lee. "Polar regions are poorly explored compared to other places. They're difficult places to work in, though simpler to study in a sense--they're productive grounds to sift through the noise to get to the signal."

Lee, who studied the geology of asteroids and searched for meteorites in Antarctica as part of the ANSMET program (see " Space Science at the Poles"), has long had an interest in impact geology. "Impact craters are interesting because they are the most universal planetary event, common to all planets and their satellites, instrumental in planetary formation." Should we find life on Mars and other worlds, particularly microbial life, Lee believes that we may discover that it is spread through major impacts, hurling thousands of small, life-bearing meteoroids into space.

Lee notes that the Haughton impact actually made things easier for microbes. It shattered rocks, even normally inhospitable gneiss and granite, in ways that make it easy for what he calls "troglodyte bacteria,"--rock-dwelling microbes--to exist. The impact also created geothermal springs hospitable to heat-loving microbes. "We normally see impacts as catastrophes," Lee says, "and for large, multicellular animals maybe they are. But for microbes, impacts are positive things."

Human Exploration, Mars, and Life

As interesting as studying impact zones is for Lee, the human exploration of Mars motivates him just as much. "The real fascination for Mars has to do with life. That's because we're trying to understand who we are. We don't understand ourselves and hope that by studying life on Mars we can understand more about our place in the universe."

Lee disagrees with the current trend towards exclusively robotic missions to Mars. "Many scientists view short-term research as robotics-only. They spend a 30-year career competing to get a spacecraft to Mars with a reasonable instrument package. The mission will discover a few things, and another mission will discover something more, but these increments are slow."

Rather than try and build his own robotic package, Lee and his colleagues at HMP have chosen to focus on human exploration and its problems. They test spacesuits, communications gear, and procedures such as telemedicine that explorers on Mars would use. Lee says, "Sending humans to Mars is part of the scientific process. Once humans go, we will have that infrastructure to continue exploring. That's what happened to the Arctic and the Antarctic."

"I'm in the mode of gambling, doing everything I can to get a human mission going. But the Haughton Mars Project justifies that investment. It's worth dedicating a career to a human mission. It will take 20 years, but the lessons learned from it will be greater than any number of robotic missions that we can send."

Flashline Mars Analog Research Station

Although NASA maintains a plan for the human exploration of Mars, Congress has yet to provide a budget for it. As a result, a group of scientists, engineers, astronauts, and space travel enthusiasts has banned together to form a private organization--The Mars Society--both to lobby and test plans and equipment for a human mission to Mars. In summer 2000, scientists at HMP were joined by a group of researchers led by aeronautical engineer and Mars Society President Robert Zubrin and funded by the Mars Society and several corporate sponsors, including the Discovery Channel. The two groups, who share a common interest in the human exploration of Mars, now share equipment, travel arrangements, and in many cases, personnel, but are organized and funded separately.

In 2000, Zubrin's team built a simulated Mars lander/habitat (hab) capable of carrying a crew of six--the Flashline Mars Analog Research Station (FMARS). In 2001, they put in their first full summer using FMARS to conduct both real and simulated science and exploration missions of various Devon Island environments.

Zubrin considers Devon Island an excellent place to study planetary science and to perfect aeronautical engineering, that is, "the kind of systems that are useful for exploring these environments." Living and working in the hab, wearing simulated spacesuits that restrict their mobility, using equipment such as telerobots and a seismic array developed by the European Space Agency, their goal was to find and fix many of the problems involved in the human exploration of Mars.

In just one summer of full operation, Zubrin and his colleagues have made a number of important observations. "Exploring is a very physical activity, comparable to back-packing," he says. "Why are NASA mission plans designed for a zero-gravity transit to Mars? Will the astronauts who arrive there be in shape to explore the planet?"

"Exploring takes a lot of time. An EVA [extravehicular activity] planned for 4 hours actually takes 6 when you add in time to put on and take off the spacesuit. The time for the crew to catalog and write up their research or even to get some sleep will be short. What we discovered on Devon is that you have a serious overwork problem."

Water may not be the big payload problem NASA thinks it is. While NASA estimated that each astronaut would require 32 liters per day, the FMARS crew, instituting strict rules for water use, got it down to closer to 12 liters per day per person. "You can't derive these numbers in the laboratory," Zubrin says. "You have to get them at a realistic site, doing real field work."

The FMARS crew also used telerobots and wire-guided robots in its field research, comparing their capabilities to human exploration. Zubrin's conclusion: "Humans were a thousand times as effective as robots in finding things of scientific interest. What that suggests is that you send humans where you can, saving the robots to explore the places that humans can't get at."


HMP and FMARS offer opportunities for seasonal volunteers and for graduates and postgraduates with research proposals. HMP hires local high school students to staff and maintain its camp and, according to Lee, has some positions for graduate and undergraduate students. Lee encourages students with good ideas for research projects to write him, although he cautions that the logistics of the site limit the number of projects that can be supported in any one summer.

Lee advises students interested in polar and planetary science to "stick to your dream and keep at it. There will be difficulties--anybody who does things experiences failures. Take them as a lesson in life and keep trying." Lee notes that he waited 3 years to go to Antarctica, and that the experience there was a turning point in his life. "When I see students who want to go, I do my best to oblige them because it can be a life-changing experience." Those interested can check the HMP Web site.

FMARS and the Mars Society solicit volunteers, including scientists and engineers, for about half of its positions each summer. Those interested should check the Mars Society Web site.

Zubrin describes aerospace engineering, as "a volatile field, with rich times and lean times. In the early 1990s times were lean and everyone said, 'Don't go into aerospace engineering.' But some did, and persevered. Now, with the war on terrorism beginning, there may be new challenges to funding Mars exploration. Still, I believe that this period of history will be looked back on as the beginning of a huge time of exploration. Anyone with talent and persistence can participate."

Want to send an email to the author?

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers