Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Mars Desert Research Station

From Boing Boing:

The Mars Society Desert Research Station is a facility near Hanksville, Utah where researchers pretend they're living on Mars. When researchers leave the facility to collect samples, they wear spacesuits. Email communication is on a 20 minute delay to simulate the distance the radio signals would have to travel between Earth and the Red Planet. The idea is to identify the challenges, from logistical to mechanical to psychological issues, that a team visiting Mars might face.

I think it's great when the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) gets covered, because it is such a can-do project. And it gives me an excuse to write down my MDRS experiences, which I've put off for too long.

I was a member of the MDRS site selection committee back in 2000 (I think it was 2000... my memory is a little fuzzy). We had a broad set of criteria for selecting a Martian analogue in the United States. It was clear from the beginning that we needed something in the Desert Southwest, since Mars doesn't have too many plants. But we also had to account for geological diversity, land ownership, security, and the logistics of transport and construction.

The lack of plant cover was a surprisingly difficult criteria to satisfy. Deserts are far more lush than you might think. Google Earth would have been immensely valuable to our endeavor, but it didn't exist at the time. Instead, we used a variety of Landsat, aerial, and USGS imagery, plus GIS data provided by state and local governments.

We identified several candidates. Our first promising candidate was the American Girl Mine in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains of southern California. The mine was no longer operational. A site visit showed it to be unsuitable. Another candidate was a crater in Nevada. I can't remember if it was a volcanic or meteor crater. One of our committee members was a pilot and they did some aerial photography. Even though the vegetation was sparse, it was still too much. Another one was in northern Arizona, and a site visit showed it, too, to be unsuitable.

James Cameron (yeah, that one) suggested to Dr. Robert Zubrin that we have a look in and around the badlands of southern Utah. I recruited my good friend Dr. Patrick Young to join me on a photo reconnaissance to Utah. We did a lot of initial work reviewing land ownership maps, topo maps, aerial photos, and satellite imagery. James Cameron had suggested we poke around Hanksville, Utah.

At first we thought we should be looking at public lands, such as those managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM land is woven together with state land in an odd checkerboard pattern in the area of concern. My guess is that it was some land trade deal in the past - some kind of 80/20 split. So we stopped in at the BLM office to chat about it. People give you funny looks when you ask to build a simulated Martian habitat on their (our) land. The response we received was disinterest coupled with bewilderment.

Patrick and I went on to visit the area where the MDRS would eventually be located. We took copious photos, evaluated the soil, and did a lot of exploring. We even found a coal seam. We wrote up our experiences and submitted our photos for consideration and the site was selected. I think it was situated on a piece of state land, Utah being more amenable than Uncle Sam. I later designed the logo for the MDRS and the original website. I'm proud of my (small) contribution to the advancement of knowledge and exploration. I learned a lot from my experience on the site selection committee.

I have never seen the Mars Desert Research Station in person.