Month on “Mars”: Kinder, Gentler Mars

On the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) on Devon Island in the Arctic, we’ve had weather changes and another little taste of human stressors.

When we got here it was sunny with temperatures between 40 and 50 and we got used to it. “Look at this landscape!” one of us would say. “Like Mars!” another would have added, and it was. But it was like Mars in a comfortable environment with one Earth gravity, with a breathable atmosphere and an ambient temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius).

We woke up today to what could be considered more typical Martian weather. Strong wind all night and cold. It was about 35 F (1.6 C) with 30 mph (48 km/h) winds; with wind chill, this is well below zero.

On the subject: Mars: everything you need to know about the Red Planet

Painting by Rod Pyle

Rod Pyle is a space historian and writer who organized and offered leadership and innovation training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Rod received the endorsement and recognition of the outgoing NASA Associate Director, Chief Information Officer of the Johnson Space Center for his work.

Bear in mind that there are many more civilized people in Minnesota and elsewhere who would call me a whiner, and I disagree, but it’s cold here for this Southern California city slicker. Add to this the constant fine sand blown by the wind from the bottom of the Von Braun Planitia (a wide, muddy valley floor extending from the base of the bluff on which the Haughton-Mars project base is located) and a wide open area that does not impede the wind at all, and you have conspiracy from the sandy cold.

Von Braun Planitia, a sand-filled, windswept plain near the base of the Haughton-Mars project. (Image credit: Rod Pyle)

All this reminds, despite these temporary conditions, how well we are all adapted to the Earth. We are the children of this planet; we have evolved under the tyranny of gravity alone and with the pleasure of 14 pounds per square inch of breathable atmosphere. This is the environment we were raised for. It is unique in the solar system, and from what we have observed, it may be unique in our region of the galaxy. Thus, any discomfort we may feel here, while instructive, is absolute child’s play compared to the harsh reality of other planets.

Men in coats and winter hats play cards at an Arctic base camp.

The crew of the Haughton-Mars project play cards at the base camp. (Image credit: Rod Pyle)

Not so long ago, the solar system was a kinder, gentler place. I’m old enough to remember the time before Mariner 4 sailed past Mars in 1965; our perception of the other terrestrial planets, though evolving, was still blissfully naive. The notions of astronomers like Percival Lowell struggled to survive in the second half of the 20th century, but the prevailing notion of Mars as Earth’s colder, bleaker twin and Venus as our planet’s tropical twin died hard. Telescopic and radar observations dropped the idea of ​​“sister planets,” but science fiction writers and filmmakers could still push the idea, without too much effort, that one day we would be walking around Mars in polar clothes with an oxygen tank as an extra. our breathing is “not much different from climbing Everest,” as some armchair scientists say.

Oh how wrong we were.

Mariner 4 flew past Mars in July 1965 and found the nearly airless, cratered planet.

Mariner 4 flew past Mars in July 1965 and found the nearly airless, cratered planet. (Image credit: NASA)

When Mariner 4 swooped past Mars on July 15, 1965, Ray Bradbury’s feverish dream empire on Mars was finally shattered into red dust. By the time the data was evaluated, Mars had an atmosphere about 1/100th the density of Earth, and so rich in CO2 that it was impossible to breathe anyway. By the time successive sailors explored the Red Planet, and the twin Viking landers completed their first months of service on the plains of Chris and Utopia, we began to realize that the surface was flooded with deadly radiation and that the soil was likely riddled with deadly peroxides. . The romantic idea that we have a nearby, almost twin world that can give us a second home has gone into interplanetary space.

Let’s move on to 2022. We now have over a dozen missions to Mars, our sixth rover is currently exploring the surface (including China’s Zhurong) and we are getting continuous reports of the weather on the surface and the conditions surrounding the planet. We know how hostile Mars is to human life (and don’t even get me started on Venus!), and what it takes to survive there.


While places like the Haughton-Mars project don’t perfectly model the soil chemistry, intense radiation, lower gravity, or rarefied Martian atmosphere, the work done here is still significant. The geology of the region strongly resembles that of Mars, as does the terrain on which it is located.

According to Mars Institute planetary scientist and HMP creator Pascal Lee, this could point to a cold and icy climate history for Mars, a notion somewhat at odds with current thinking. Techniques for crossing the Martian surface, using space suits and robots, collecting samples, conducting basic on-site analyzes, and other experiments are being carried out. Increasingly, aerial reconnaissance methods such as NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter are being evaluated with promising results. The more you can learn on Earth, the less you have to learn on Mars, saving you effort, money, and possibly lives.

As Michael Hecht, principal investigator of ISRU’s MOXIE experiment aboard the Perseverance rover, once told me, “Many technological demonstrations are destined to succeed on Earth” and therefore fail in space. Testing everything that can be tested on Earth in a place like Devon Island will make the journey easier when it happens.

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