Meet the people living on (artificial) Mars

How many people are currently living on Mars? You may raise your eyebrows and wonder whether I expect Mark Watney to wander around the corner at any moment, fresh from running roughshod all over planetary protection protocol.

But the answer to my question is a real number, and it’s an ever-fluctuating one. In the preparations for a human mission to Mars, the headline glamour belongs to the development of the technology that will get us there – however, the question of what we will do when we reach the red planet has been on the minds of scientists and researchers for many years.fake_martian_sky

As we can never fully replicate Martian conditions, each mission is designed to test different aspects and challenges of establishing a base in an environment entirely hostile to human life. The surface of Mars has one-third of Earth’s gravity (compared to one-sixth for the moon), increased radiation, a low-pressure carbon dioxide atmosphere and an ambient temperature ranging from 0 to -60˚C in the mid-latitudes, where we’re likely to land. Wander outside without a spacesuit and it’s a race to see whether you pass out from lack of oxygen before the water in your lungs, eyes, nose and throat boils away. Friendly – no wonder Elon Musk described it as a “real fixer-upper of a planet”.

But you want to know the number. Right now, at the time of writing, it’s six.people_on_artificial_mars_credit_christiane_heinicke

On the appropriately alien-looking slopes of Mauna Loa in Hawaii perches the HI-SEAS dome – and on 28 August 2015, the crew of Mission IV entered it to spend a full year living in an imitation Martian habitat. HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) is principally designed to test the reality of confining six people to a small environment; with research into crew wellbeing, food and the technology of the habitat’s systems taking place across the 12 months.

“In a way, it’s something of a relief to be able to disconnect from this negativity, and focus on doing something beneficial for mankind.”

Despite physically being on Earth and still observing Hawaii time, rather than the 24-hour, 39-minute Martian sol, Mission IV experience an imposed 20-minute delay on all communications with the outside world, and are only permitted to leave the dome in modified hazmat suits following an EVA (Extravehicular Activity – the same as a spacewalk) protocol and airlock procedure.

I wondered whether, with this mashup of restrictions, the crew felt more akin to other scientists working in remote locations on Earth, such as overwintering in Antarctica, or the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS).

Carmel Johnston, Mission IV’s commander, thinks it’s probably the former. “First, we actually have gravity [which] completely changes the game. The way that we physically move, eat, sleep, and do everything is totally different. Because the ISS is still in Earth’s orbit, they have normal internet, social media, phone calls and so on. We have internet restrictions that are more similar to Antarctica, where you can email but can’t Skype with family and friends.”mars_dome_interior

The communication restriction is something that the crew have mixed feelings about. The 20-minute gap rules out some of the connectedness of social media, and Mission IV are confined to using email or exchanging videos when they want to speak to family and friends. Both Johnston and Tristan Bassingthwaighte, the crew’s architect, note that messages on the outside can become infrequent – an email takes more effort than simply picking up the phone. Yet Andrzej Stewart (chief engineering officer) finds that “being isolated makes you realise how much we’re inundated by [a focus on negative events] back on Earth through the internet, social media, television and other avenues. In a way, it’s something of a relief to be able to disconnect from this negativity, and focus on doing something beneficial for mankind.”

“Mars end up looking surprisingly close to life on Earth – dishes still need doing, floors cleaning and plants watering.”

However, this aspect of detachment will be amplified on Mars if future missions follow a Martian calendar. With half an hour tacked on to each day, astronauts will slowly migrate further and further from the goings on of Earth; something Sheyna Gifford, chief medical and safety officer, pointed out raises a particular problem for religious observations such as the Jewish Shabbat. Does it begin at sunset on Mars or on Earth? And when do you celebrate Christmas? Establishing communities off terra is, it transpires, more complex than simply keeping everyone alive.hi_seas_layout_artificial_mars

But what of day-to-day life inside the dome? Compared to high-tech environments such as the ISS, life in this solar-powered habitat is surprisingly frugal, as Gifford outlines. “With the exception of the power system, everything is surprisingly low-tech here. I have very few medicines with which to work. We make our own bread, yoghurt and cheese. We reuse water. We recycle cans into containers to be used as planters. We throw away very little and use very little compared to the average American household. When night falls, we’re careful with power, because there is no grid.” In contrast to our futuristic image of spaceflight, many aspects of settling on Mars end up looking surprisingly close to life on Earth – dishes still need doing, floors cleaning and plants watering.

One of the biggest questions to answer if we are ever to send a team to Mars for any length of time is whether crops can successfully be grown there. HI-SEAS are testing plant growth in both an imitation of Martian soil and a hydroponic system – where media more amenable to interplanetary transport can be trialled.

Similar investigations are also taking place aboard the ISS, where the Veggie experiment yielded the first crop to be grown and eaten in space in August 2015 – some romaine lettuce. After a journey to Mars lasting up to eight months, fresh vegetables of any kind are not just going to look remarkably good, but become essential.

It is to lay the groundwork for this trip in particular that astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, who departed the ISS on Tuesday 1 March, have spent 340 days in space. Although astronauts have spent longer on orbit (no really, they say “on orbit”) before, the Year in Space was uniquely designed to test the physical challenges of long range human spaceflight. During a prolonged zero gravity voyage, the body will experience bone loss, muscle degeneration, exposure to high levels of radiation, and disruption of sleep patterns, for starters. Kelly and Kornienko will undergo a battery of tests as they readjust to life on Earth, in order to determine how these effects may impact a manned Mars mission. In a world-first, Kelly’s twin brother Mark (also, remarkably, an astronaut) will also take part, allowing researchers an unprecedented opportunity to compare the physiology of two genetically identical individuals when one has been subjected to almost an entire year in space.

Other missions currently treading the red soil include NEEMO (truly, there is no love like that of a science for a good acronym), an underwater laboratory off the coast of Florida, in which teams live and work for up to three weeks at a time, simulating planetary EVAs on the sea floor, and the Haughton Mars Project. Seated next to a large impact crater on the remote Devon Island in northern Canada, HMP’s location is similar to Mars in its geology and (relative) isolation. Around 100 researchers make it their base every summer, testing exploration strategies, protocols and equipment, including the pressurised MARS-1 Humvee rover.earth_from_mars

“But no matter how distant it may feel, the team are always aware that they are on Earth.”

One question that no simulated mission can answer is precisely how astronauts will react to being so far from Earth. With the notable exception of Mars-500, which took place in an entirely enclosed environment, every other long-term project has involved at least a view of the natural world. Despite being physically isolated from the outdoors, the crew of the HI-SEAS dome enjoy the natural light that filters through the structure’s fabric, and the view from Mauna Loa.

Even then, Cyprien Verseux, (the crew biologist) says that “there are times I just want to put on sneakers and headphones and go for a run in nature, or go swimming in a lake…” But no matter how distant it may feel, the team are always aware that they are on Earth, just as the Mars-500 crew would have been. Even from the moon, the Apollo astronauts could see the intricate detail of our planet. While such missions worthily and thoroughly test as many outcomes as possible, there’s still no substitute for the effect of seeing the only home you’ve ever known as no more than a faint point of light in the sky.

READ NEXT: Will we land humans on Mars within a generation? 

Images: Christiane Heinicke, Sheyna Gifford, Hi-Seas, NASA

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