Dreams of Mars travel continue in Nunavut
But Canadian Space Agency no longer supports Haughton-Mars project on Devon Island
Scientist Pascal Lee thinks Nunavut has the potential to help mankind push itself into the unknown.
Lee, who chairs the Mars Institute, dedicated to research on Mars, is also the director of the Haughton-Mars project, where researchers — and wanna-be astronauts — can conduct experiments on Devon Island in Nunavut’s High Arctic.
Since his first visit to Devon Island in the late 1990s, Lee has remained convinced that its 23-kilometre wide Haughton crater, created more than 20 million years ago by a blast many times more powerful than any nuclear explosion, is a close replica of what Mars could look like — or an analog for the Red Planet, similar to other remote, desert-like sites around the globe.
While Lee lives in California where he conducts most of his planetary research, he’s been coming to Nunavut for 16 years now to carry out different aspects of the research that he hopes will eventually lead to manned-missions to Mars.
“There’s definitely engagement of Canadians in our research. The beauty of it is, I really believe the future of humans, whoever they are, will one day come and train on Devon Island before they go,” Lee said. “And in that sense, Nunavut will have played a very key role in making [the] journey possible for humanity,” he said.
This season, Lee has three experiments he wants to accomplish.
The first is to test a new robotic drill that could break the surface of the planet to see whether there really is life on Mars.
The surface of Mars is completely uninhabitable, but “on the sub-surface, it’s a completely different story,” said Lee, who is also a research scientist at the Seti Institute, a California-based, non-profit organization searching “for life in the universe.”
“Just like there’s life underground in the soil, in the underground, and in caves on Earth, there’s actually a serious possibility that there could be an entire biosphere on Mars deeper down.”
Lee also wants to continue to test his two rovers, which include the “Mars-1 Humvee,” a refurbished four-wheel-drive all-terrain rover, which he attempted in 2009 to drive from Kugluktuk to Devon Island, without success.
The idea is to see how future astronauts piloting a pressurized vehicle can collect geologic samples on asteroids, the moon, and Mars, without always needing to go out on spacewalks, the Mars Institute website says.
And Lee would like to figure out what happened when Devon Island’s Haughton crater was formed: how many million years ago the crater was formed (estimates range from 21 to 39 million years ago) and what actually did strike Devon Island.
“Either what hit [Devon Island] was either a comet, mostly made of ice, in which case there won’t be any traces of anything left. Or it was an asteroid, which would have been a hunk of rock and metal,” he said.
In any event, space-related research is worth the money, Lee said. Technologies like the satellite phone, or even weather forecasts wouldn’t be possible unless money were spent on space programs, he said.
This year’s two-and-a-half-week research season at the Haughton Crater will cost NASA more than $100,000.
“I’m often asked, why are we spending so much money in space when there are so many other problems to work on at Earth. And my answer to that is, the money isn’t spent in space. It’s spent here on Earth in universities, in industry, in research, in new technologies,” Lee said.
But one organization doesn’t think it’s worth the money: the Canadian Space Agency, which cut funding to the Haughton-Mars project last year.
“It’s a financial roller coaster ride. Because last year the Canadian Space Agency decided its activities here are done for now,” Lee said.
The Canadian Space Agency did decide to support a Mars mission called Curiosity, allotting $17.6 million of Canadian-made technology to the overall $2.5 billion international project.
“With the Mars science lab that will be landing Aug. 6, we’re providing an instrument called AXPS, Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer,” said Stéphane Desjardins , the director of space exploration program at the Canadian Space Agency.
A similar piece of technology was used in Devon Island years before this project, said Lee.
“Curiosity has software that evolved from an earlier version that we essentially designed and developed on Devon Island,” Lee said. “Some of the brains of the vehicle have benefitted from the lessons we learned at NASA from testing rovers in the past here on Devon Island. In some sense, Devon Island is on curiosity in spirit.”
But Desjardins, doesn’t think this is the case, although he acknowledges that there may be another part of the Mars mission that is based on a similar concept.
With less money, activities at the Haughton-Mars project camp have been scaled back from previous years, with only one local worker, Ben Audlaluk, now employed at the site.
In the past, Lee also tossed around the idea of Devon Island becoming home to a moneymaking and job-creating “Mars Theme Park” — as an idea that could appeal to a High Arctic community with little economic activity and a sky-high cost of living.
The “Mars on Earth” Haughton-Mars project website, whose webcam showed the growth of plants in a greenhouse named after Arthur C. Clarke, the famed author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, hasn’t been updated fully since 2010.
So, due to budget cuts, you won’t see the showy space-simulation activities which used to regularly take place at the Haughton-Mars camp, such as a mock space habitat, which was occupied for one field season by a group of Mars enthusiasts.