'This Is Mars On Earth'

By Roland Piquepaille

When will we send humans to Mars? Not anytime soon. So scientists are looking at places on Earth where conditions would be similar to the ones on the Red Planet. And they found a good location, according to this well-documented article from the Los Angeles Times (free registration necessary).

NASA doesn't plan to launch humans to Mars anytime soon, so Pascal Lee decided to drive.
First came miles of seemingly endless ridges of ice and expanses of grayish-yellow rock. Then yawning canyons and, in the distance, the rim of a massive meteor crater. Through the frosted windshield, Lee scanned the terrain for the myriad dangers of this alien landscape: snowdrifts capable of swallowing his Humvee, a precariously thin skin of ice on the frozen ocean and really hungry polar bears.
It's not quite Mars, but for aficionados of the Red Planet, it's the next best thing. It's Canada.
More precisely, it's Devon Island, the world's largest uninhabited land mass and a place so desolate even the hardy Inuit forsake it. For Lee, a Mars expert at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., it was love at first sight when he first saw the island's unearthly landscape in 1997.

To give you an idea of the weather conditions on Devon Island, here is a photography taken by Pascal Lee.

Devon Island, Canada

Of course, Devon Island is not the only location where scientists test new devices supposed to be used in space.

"Mars analogs," as Devon and places like it are called, have become all the rage among planetary scientists. NASA scientists use extreme locations around the globe -- the volcanoes of Antarctica, Norway's Svalbard islands and the Mohave Desert -- to test rovers, crawling robots and other technology against the same cold, dry bleakness they expect to find on Mars.
"We want to test things in the harshest possible environment on Earth to see how they behave," said Scott Anderson, a University of Hawaii geophysicist who braved temperatures of 4 below zero atop the glaciers of Svalbard to work the kinks out of a Jet Propulsion Laboratory "cryoscout" drill that could one day bore into Mars' northern ice cap.
Here on Devon, about 60 scientists, Mars buffs and local Inuit guides test the merits of spacesuits wired with internal computers and vehicles they can use for multi-night sojourns away from camp. They also test their own ability to forgo bathing, and be surrounded by unbathed colleagues who often turn surly as soap and hot water become memories.

Still, some of the scientists think weather conditions are too easy -- at least during summer.

"It's too warm. The air's too thick. There's surface water. We can breathe," said Brian Glass, a computer scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Northern California who has worked summers at Devon since 1998. "If we wanted a real analog, we'd come in winter when it's 50 or 60 below. And we just might."

Source: Usha Lee McFarling, Los Angeles Times, July 11, 2003


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