August 11, 2006

Let’s play spaceman

“Houston, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

JOHN THOMPSON

“Houston, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” says NASA researcher Pascal Lee as he pretends to be an injured spaceman during one exercise in the Haughton Crater on Devon Island this summer. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE HAUGHTON-MARS PROJECT)

Scientists who recently visited Devon Island to play dress-up as space men are describing their mock rescue of an injured astronaut as a “success.”

The exercise was just one of several activities underway around Devon Island’s Haughton Crater from July 4 to August 9, when about 55 scientists and support staff from the Haughton-Mars Project camped on the inhospitable swath of polar desert, chosen because of its resemblance to the Red Planet, as well as the Moon.

The yearly summer camp receives support from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, the Mars Institute and the SETI — that’s the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence — Institute.

During the rescue exercise, held on Aug. 1, flight surgeon Rick Scheuring and rocket scientist Pascal Lee dressed up in space suits and clambered around the rocky hillside.

The scenario: astronauts are exploring the Moon when one trips, falls and hurts himself.

“Houston, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” said Lee, according to the group’s web site, as he lay on the ground and pretended he was unable to walk.

Meanwhile, their voices and vital signs were transmitted to the NASA Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas; the International Space University in Strasbourg, France; and the Payload Tele-operations Centre in Montreal.

Also watching the two would-be astronauts was Lee’s “space dog,” Ping Pong.

Keeping an eye on Lee is his “space dog,” Ping Pong.

Scheuring performed a rescue using hand winches and a special litter, designed to roll over rock and ice, molded to hold a space suit. Lee was then loaded on to the MARS-1 Humvee.

Mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, other researchers at the crater site were hard at work for 18 days in July figuring out how to grow cucumbers in the Arctic, or on another planet, via remote control.

The automated Arthur Clarke Greenhouse — named after the famed science fiction writer and author of 2001: A Space Odyssey — ran into setbacks last winter, after polar bears knocked a hole in the building’s side.

Researchers from the Canadian Space Agency repaired the greenhouse this summer and upgraded the robotic gadgets used to automatically provide heat, nutrients and water for a variety of plants they hope to grow: lettuce, radish, cucumber and zinnias.

The fall crop can be viewed online, thanks to several web cams trained on the growing vegetables. These cameras will allow researchers at the University of Florida, who are assisting in the project, to keep an eye on the plants.

Another tray of seeds will be kept dry until the spring.

“We are more confident than ever that all systems will be go next May or June when we send the command to begin the spring crop phase,” wrote Alain Berinstain from the Canadian Space Agency and the University of Guelph.

“We intend to serve a lettuce, cucumber, and radish salad to the research station camp next July from crops germinated remotely.”

Others at the camp collected rocks they say could reveal the origins of life on Earth.

When a meteorite struck the Earth some 23 to 38 million years ago and formed the Haughton Crater, scientists believe the impact triggered hot springs, creating a warm, nutrient-rich environment that may have supported tiny microbes.

Dr. Richard Léveillé, a visiting fellow in astrobiology at the Canadian Space Agency, plans to use fancy equipment such as electron microscopes, mass spectrometers and x-ray based instruments to look for the remains of such microbes in the rocks.

If such a meteorite collision helped support life on Earth, it’s possible a similar event could have supported life on Mars.

And while the Government of Nunavut struggles to recruit enough doctors to staff the territory’s hospitals, the Haughton camp was wired to a state-of-the-art telemedicine system that allowed a surgeon to study one camp member from afar.

A portable ultrasound system allowed a mock patient said to have chest pains to be examined by Dr. Ross Brown, a trauma surgeon in Vancouver, BC.

Another fancy gadget tested this summer was a big drill designed to run automatically, called DAME — the Drilling Automation for Mars Exploration.

Tests exceeded their goals, said principal investigator Brian Glass on the web site.

The drill ran for over three hours, pierced three metres below the crater surface, and dealt with a number of problems, such as watching for choking and cave-ins as it drilled through dirt.

Following the experiment, Glass wrote that “the humans around all jumped up and cheered and pumped their arms, bundled up sitting in a dome tent in an Arctic crater.”

For more information, visit www.marsonearth.org.

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