The surface of Mars as photographed by the American rover Curiosity shows a diverse topography and terrain. Meteorite craters dot the surface alongside giant volcanoes, deep canyons, immense valley systems, expanses of sand dunes, and mighty cracks and fissures deep into the planet’s crust.
The Goblin Valley state park in Utah, the United States, has a very similar look to it. There is hardly any vegetation, only rocks and sand. There is no water, and erosion has left boulders that look like mushrooms, or goblins.
The Mars Society has chosen this landscape to create as realistic a simulation of life on Mars as possible. Six students from Louvain’s Catholic University in Belgium are taking part in a scientific project baptised “Mission to Mars”.
They will have to live here for 15 days inside a self-contained station to try and reproduce life under Martian conditions.
“If you look at the relief here the soil earth is rich in iron oxide, it is very red and the area is very hilly so it is very similar to what you can find on Mars,” says mission commander Bastien Mathurin.
Future Martian explorers will have to endure bitter cold as temperatures on the red planet plunge below minus 60 degrees. Here it is heat that is the enemy.
“I have two air supplies here but it is not enough. It is designed to cool us down but is not optimal. It’s very hot here,” says communications officer Romain Compère.
The students will have to perform a number of scientific tasks, just like astronauts will have to, one day. For example, measuring one of the numerous dried river beds that snake across the Martian surface.
They will have to take soil samples, no easy matter on this powdery, slippery terrain. Mars will be no walk in the park.
“I just took an soil sample and GPS coordinates so our biologist will be able to analyse the bacterias present,” says engineer Gaspard Touwaide.
The station contains the living quarters and also a biology lab.
“Here I am trying to identify them by making them grow in different environments and by making different tests,” says biologist Florian Commans. “For example, it would be a priority to try to see which bacteria we could find on Mars. It is clear that there will be no bacteria on the surface because of ionizing radiation which makes life impossible. But a few metres underground it may be possible to find bacteria.”
The habitat is circular and is shaped much like the stage of a rocket that could one day land on Mars. Only eight metres in diameter and with just 100 square metres of space split into two floors, the interior is spartan. Water is rationed, and all food is dried astronaut rations. The only private space is the tiny bedrooms.
The students use four-wheel drive vehicles to test the wi-fi coverage around the base. As with all pioneers, they have to be creative, and make their own tools and instruments if need be.
“Yes indeed, “ says the team’s engineer Gaspard. “A simple colander can be used as a satellite dish and concentrate all signals on the antenna.”
The object of the mission is to discover the best way to explore Mars, and daily life is a vital part of the experiment.