A little corner of Mars on Devon Island

NASA scientists are enthralled by the bleak landscape of Devon Island's interior — because it's just like Mars.

JANE GEORGE
Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT — The landscape of Devon Island is bleak, just rocks, frozen rubble, canyons, dry stream beds and steep ledges, but for space researchers and enthusiasts, the scenery is nearly perfect.

That's because this barren place reminds them of Mars.

"Mars today, like Devon, is a frigid, cold desert, a rocky one, and littered with meteor impact craters," said NASA scientist Pascal Lee.

The similarity between this High Arctic island and Mars first hit Dr. Lee when the young researcher stumbled over some studies that had been carried out on Devon Island's unusual geological features.

Lee learned that there's an ancient metorite crater on Devon Island, the Haughton Crater, that's remarkably similar to those found on Mars. He was also struck by the fact that this polar desert in Nunavut is reasonably accessible and not covered up by ice, as are many other similar sites at the poles.

"It's a unique piece of real estate, unique for the whole planet," Lee said.

In 1997, Lee and a small group of NASA-sponsored researchers decided to head up to Devon Island to take a closer look at the place themselves.

Mars-like environment

"We were flabbergasted," Lee said. "It's a rich site, with a lot of potential to tell us about Mars."

Lee was in Iqaluit last week where he spoke with government officials, local students and the public about his ongoing research on Devon Island.

Since 1997, Lee's NASA-led project, known as the Haughton-Mars Project, has returned for two more research seasons at the Haughton Crater. So far, researchers have concentrated on exploring the rugged terrain of a 20-kilometer wide crater, created by the impact of a meteor that produced a blast many times more powerful than any nuclear explosion.

Lee said that study of the crater may tell more about how a planet can withstand such a major collision with an asteroid or meteorite.

And, while Devon may be "less hospitable than some would like to have it", Lee said that because it resembles Mars at its warmest, it provides an idea of what kind of climate and conditions existed on Mars in the past.

At the crater, the team has also tested out new space technology. Last summer researchers established direct communication with NASA's command centre in Houston, Texas and put remote-controlled equipment to use.

Increasingly, they're looking at this crater as a test site for the future exploration of Mars by robots and humans.

The settlement of Mars?

As a result, the Haughton-Mars Project has also drawn the support and interest of the Mars Society, an international lobby group that wants to promote the exploration and settlement of the solar system's fourth planet.

The Mars Society's members include serious scientists as well as somewhat fanatical science buffs.

Robert Zubrin, the group's founder, is the author of "The Case for Mars: the plan to settle the Red Planet and Why We Must."

In this book, Zubrin makes the case that manned expeditions to Mars are possible and desireable. His message is that mankind thrives on adversity and that the exploration of Mars will start a new, positive era of human development.

"We did not get thrown out the the Garden of Eden because we ate from the Tree of Knowledge," Zubrin has said. "We ate from the Tree of Knowledge because we left the garden."

Some of the Mars Society's members want Mars to become a utopian environment, a new and better society where there's no government intervention. Others are keen on developing new commercial opportunities on the Red Planet, such as the sale of viewing rights to Mars, raising rabbits on Mars ("One giant leap", say its proponents) or even burying dead bodies on Mars.

But reaching Mars isn't even a US government priority at the moment. Most of NASA's $50 billion budget goes towards developing and supporting the International Space Station.

Low budget project

The Haughton-Mars Project has a total annual budget under $200,000, so the Mars Society is doing fundraising of its own to boost the project's profile and supply state-of-the-art space equipment.

Next summer the Mars Society plans to fund the construction of a mock space habitat at the crater. This unit, approximately eight meters high, would be able to house four to six members of the research team.

The facility will have two decks with sleeping quarters, work space, a laboratory, an exercise room, a galley and a sick bay. An air lock will link an inflatable greenhouse and garage to the main building. Solar panels will provide much of the energy required.

"The key thing is that this facility has to provide us with a useful field laboratory," Lee said. "But we're happy to have something that looks sexy."

The building, which will require nearly $1 million and several years to complete, is intended to remain at Devon Island year-round, although at this point, there are no plans to prolong the research activity beyond the brief High Arctic summer.

According to Lee, the technology necessary to send flights to Mars is already as advanced as when the US government decided to invest in serious exploration of the moon back in the 60s.

But Lee said that with the end of the Cold War, there's little pressure to reach Mars.

This means there's more time to minimize any risks involved in the venture, by using a site like Devon's Haughton Crater as a living laboratory for Mars.

"You have to do it right," Lee said. "It's a magnificient challenge that needs careful planning."

By 2015, Lee said he won't be surprised to see manned exploration of Mars.