Friday, 1 August 2014

Tips for Surviving Life on Mars

Annie Caraccio. Photo by Ross Lockwood.

Ross Lockwood is a PhD Candidate studying Condensed Matter Physics at the University of Alberta who has just completed a 120 day Mars Mission Simulation with the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) project. His ability to build and improvise different scientific equipment and his experience with experimental physics made him a natural fit for the team.

So, the title "Tips for Surviving Life on Mars" might be a little misleading given that we haven’t sent a person to the Martian planet just yet, but a team of researchers has undertaken a major experiment to help figure out what might be needed if we do. As a member of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog & Simulation (HI-SEAS) project, the U of A’s own Ross Lockwood (a PhD Candidate in Condensed Matter Physics) has spent 120 days testing out what life might be like on Mars by participating in a Mars mission simulation. Here’s what he’s learned so far:

You won't get windburn

Casey Stedman. Photo by Ross Lockwood

"Of course we didn't feel wind on our skin or sun on our skin for the mission. Anytime we went out we were inside of either a plastic bubble or a hazmat suit (which are plastic) so we didn't get any definition on what the ground was like unless we pressed our eyes up against it, or if we took a photo and then reviewed it later. But coming out [of the simulated Mars environment] and being able to see the world without those veils was like switching from low-definition to high-definition. And being able to smell the smells without the electric ozone smell of the fan as it's blowing the air into your suit. So, smells - overwhelming. Sights - overwhelming. And the feel of the sun and the wind on our skin was overwhelming as well."

You CAN get your greens

Photo by Ross Lockwood

"We did have plants. One of the experiments by Lucie Poulet (from France) involved testing various wave lengths of light to see what would be optimal for growing plants in an analog environment... About every three weeks or so she brought us in a fresh batch of lettuce - a really big bowl full of it, so we had salads that exceeded our ability to eat them. She also grew radishes and tomatoes and peas. It was nice to have that little disruption in the dehydrated fruit routine having fresh lettuce - although I have to say that it's not quite as fresh as what you can get at a market here. So the plants, although they were very tasty, were not quite the same as the stuff grown under the sun."

Instant messaging = Nope!

Annie Caraccio. Photo by Ross Lockwood

"We really didn't have contact with humans for those 120 days, other than through out regular communications channels: email and internet. And those were delayed by 40 minutes to simulate the distance between Earth and Mars."

And if something goes wrong with your internet connection, something like this could happen:

"We had a complete communications failure where the internet link was broken and for four days we were trying to send messages to our mission support crew and they thought that everything was hunky dory because they said "Oh, Ross is sending messages, he's fine." But my messages were literally "link down" "must help" and there were mission controllers that were going "he's having some issue with the network, I'm sure it will be resolved soon." But I needed help to fix it and then I was getting help. It was hilarious." 

No pets

Photo by Ross Lockwood

"One thing we really missed were the pets that we had back home and the interaction that you get from pets and pet like beings. I think it would be beneficial to have these robotic pets on future missions because it's an element that you don't really consider. Caring for something is a really fulfilling emotional experience."

Privacy issues

Photo by Ross Lockwood

"The most difficult thing was that in our isolation [from the broader everyday community] we were all still as close as we'd ever been to five other people. And the habitat itself doesn't have a lot of privacy as far as having private conversations go. We could do private conversations, but you'd have to ask specifically for people not to listen in or put headphones in or something like that. You could hear people in their rooms at night, turning in their beds.... The isolation itself and the lack of privacy were kind of the big challenges, and that's exactly what the HI-SEAS program is setting out to research. [The program is trying] to identify strategies for future astronauts to cope with that."

Ground  Crew Disconnect... it's real

Photo By Ross Lockwood

"Ground Crew Disconnect is when a miss-communication between a crew and ground support can cause conflict between the two. Typically what happens is that the crew will stop communicating with the mission support at that time. It's happened on many space missions. The 40 minute delay [experienced on simulated Mars] made it even more difficult to connect with [ground support]. It took a special type of person to have the patience to be able to communicate with us and to be able to support us the way that we needed to be supported."

You can still do what you love

Photo by Ross Lockwood

"We had several astronomy EVA's [extra-vehicular activities] where we took out a clock driven telescope mount and put it on a camera that was capable of doing a long exposure... it captured my favourite moment: doing astro-photography. It's incredibly difficult to do in the [space] suit but the photos turned out excellent."

You'll learn the importance of supporting your mental health

Annie Caraccio, Ron Williams, Lucie Poulet, Ross Lockwood, Tiffany Swarmer, and Casey Stedman. Photo by Ross Lockwood.

"The main lesson for me, and something I was skeptical of, was how important the psychological aspects of space travel are. I didn't think that it would be a big issue, but it ended up being a much larger issue than I thought it would be. I'm glad that there are people that recognize that that's a problem and they are studying it. I'm glad that I was able to actually participate in the study. Actually staying mentally healthy is a real challenge. That's the big take away for me. I'm now more acutely aware of my mental well being in even just regular day to day activities because I've seen the best and the worst of where I can be."

 So, would you be ready to head to Mars? 

Ross Lockwood. Photo by Lucie Poulet.

"Yeah, there's a lot of if's and's or but's, but the big criteria for me is the return mission. All of these [missions] that are proposing a colonial style mission with no proposed return - [those] would be out of the question for me. But if there really was a mission that had a short enough time scale, I'd absolutely go. The 120 day mission here in Hawaii just proved to me that it is indeed feasible to get along with people for that length of time and to accomplish some really incredible [projects]."

And, what about you? 


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