Make it Mars
UH professor part of simulated mission in the Arctic
Canada’s Devon Island is the largest uninhabited island in North America and an arctic desert not far from the North Pole. For Kim Binsted, it might as well have been Mars. For four months, the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa associate professor of information and computer science and six other researchers from the U.S. and Canada simulated a landing mission to the red planet at the Mars Society’s Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon.
The landscape was white and the temperature below freezing when the scientists landed in a ski-shod Twin Otter plane on the edge of Haughton Crater, site of a 39-million-year-old meteorite crash. They prepared equipment, organized the two-story cylinder dubbed the hab that served as living quarters and laboratory and made a little time for fun. "We sledded down the sides of the crater," Binsted says. "It was a blast."
The May-August 2007 mission was "one long day," she says. The sun set just once, for a few minutes, just before the team left. After a daily 8 a.m. planning meeting, three crew members set out on snowmobiles—or ATVs once the snow had melted—to conduct field-science studies similar to those on an actual Mars mission. Wearing simulated space suits, two members of the away team searched for evidence of past and present life, took core samples from lakebeds and investigated Mars-like landforms including weeping cliffs, hydrothermal vent structures and small-channel networks. The third, carrying a rifle, acted as polar bear monitor.
Binsted got stuck in the mud, but survived four months living with six companions in "the hab," above
"We didn’t see any, just tracks," says a relieved Binsted. "I worried about it when I got stuck in the mud. It was like quicksand in the movies. It looks firm before you step on it but then it sucks you in." She was rescued by her companions but declared "sim-dead" since, in order to escape, she had to take off her pack and helmet.
Back at the hab there were reports to write and mental and physical tests—memory, reasoning, decision making, group dynamics, reaction speed, heart rate—to take. "We collected data on everything we did," explains Binsted, the expedition’s chief scientist. Some crew members wore a vest studded with electrocardiogram sensors to monitor their sleep cycles. For a month everyone switched to a Martian day, which is 39 minutes longer than a day on Earth. They also charted water use. "We got it down to 10 liters per person per day; the average American uses 200–300," says Binsted proudly. Each person got one blink-and-you-miss-it navy shower a week. "Our noses kind of shut down after the first two weeks," she admits.
The crew shared cooking duties. Binsted concocted pizzas, sweet-and-sour meatballs and curry from textured vegetable protein, and ice cream from condensed milk and snow. They unwound with exercise, DVDs, movies and video games. "We got along really well," says Binsted, who shared a mere 500 square feet of living space with her companions.
During their final days on Devon, the crew chatted with astronaut Clay Anderson aboard the International Space Station. Space, especially Mars, is where Binsted hopes to be one day for real.