This is the Habitat in Hawaii Helping Astronauts Preparing to Explore Mars

When it comes time to send astronauts to Mars, those who make the journey will need to be ready for a number of challenges. In addition to enduring about six-months in space both ways, the first astronauts to explore Mars will also need to be prepared to spend months living on the surface. This will consist of long periods spent in a pressurized habitat and regular forays to the surface wearing pressure suits.

Preparing astronauts for this kind of living situation is the purpose behind the NASA-funded Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (Hi-SEAS), an exercise that has been taking place since 2013 site on the Hawaiian mountain of Mauna Loa. In February of 2018, the Mission VI crew began an eight month-long research study of human behavior and performance, which will apparently involve a lot of spelunking!

Located on the northern slop of Mauna Loa, Hawaii’s largest volcano, the Hi-SEAS habitat is situated at an abandoned quarry site roughly 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level. This barren area, which contains sparse vegetation and overlapping lava flows, was specifically selected because of the similarities it has to terrain on Mars – which also has large, gently sloping shield volcanoes and exposed lava flows.

Aerial image of the Hi-SEAS habitat, acquired on April 20th, 2016. Credit: NASA/Hi-SEAS

The habitat itself sits on top the Pu‘ukahiliku flow, which is the result of an eruption that took place about 1,800 years ago. This makes it older than the ‘Ainahou flow (which formed 450 years ago) and the youngest flow which was the result of Mauna Loa’s most recent eruption (in 1899). Since the Pu‘ukahiliku flow is older, the ground has been subject to more weathering and erosion, resulting in a thin layer of soil.

Since 2013, crews of six people have taken up residence in the habitat, a semi-portable, two-floor dome structure that measures 10 meters (36 feet) in diameter and has a living area of about 93 square meters (1000 square feet). Most of this is taken up by the ground floor, which has just 81 square meters (878 square feet) of usable space. The dome’s second level is loftlike, which provides a high-ceiling feel that is crucial to combating long-term feelings of claustrophobia.

Nevertheless, things can get a bit cramped for the six-person crews spending months inside the domed structure. Christiane Heinicke was part of the Mission IV crew which completed their year-long mission in August 2016. As she described their routine in an article with Scientific American:

“Cut off from civilization, we were dependent on ourselves and on each other. We had to perform any work that needed doing and fix anything that broke. All we had was the material contained in the storage unit dubbed the “sea can.” The nearest supermarket was months away. We received news “from Earth” electronically—with a 20-minute delay. That is about how long it takes for signals to travel the maximum distance of 240 million miles between the two planets.”

HI-SEAS is a martian simulation on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii. Credits: HI-SEAS

As such, every opportunity is taken to don mock space suits and venture outside to do a little exploring. These outings, which involve exploring the extensive lava flows, caves and rocky outcroppings, simulate the scientific work that would happen during a Mars mission. According to Heinicke, she and her team spent six months of their year-long mission exploring over 100 caves.

On her personal blog – Walking on Red Dust – she noted one cave in particular, a stable lava tube that had multiple skylights (openings to the surface). As she indicated, this kind of environment is one possible location for a future Mars habitat:

“Since our first exploratory visit we have returned to the cave multiple times. We have measured the cave, examined the rock more closely, and found a suitable shelter for a possible evacuation from the hab: On Mars this kind of lava tube is hoped to provide shelter to astronauts from the harmful space radiation, either as permanent settlement or as emergency shelter during a solar storm. The Martian ground definitely contains many promising skylights, they have just been inaccessible to today’s rovers.”

She also noted that the cave itself was a “geological wonderland” that had formed when the lava tube was still warm and soft. In addition to “small, furry patches of salt”, the lava tube was also full of life – such as mosses and, in one case, a frond growing directly beneath a skylight. These latter finds were of particular interest since many scientists think that water and even microbial life could exist in stable lava tubes on Mars.

The Marius Hills Skylight, as observed by the Japanese SELENE/Kaguya research team. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

“At the same time, they may harbor more moisture than the surface and even provide a refuge for living organisms.” she wrote in her article for Scientific American. “If such organisms ever existed on Mars, they would more likely have survived in caves.” In this respect, spelunking not only provides an opportunity for the Hi-SEAS crews to get out and ward off cabin fever, it also allows them to take part in research that will one day assist in searching for life on Mars and establishing a human presence there.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway for Heinicke and her teammates from their year spent in Mars-like conditions was the need for a crew to be on the same wavelength and cooperate with each other. In addition, their time together also highlighted the importance of physical fitness to promote a healthy mindset and prepare human crews for what life would be like on the surface.

“It is hardly a secret that workouts help to decrease stress,” she said. “But on a trip to Mars they would serve a second function as well. Weightlessness and the effects of reduced gravity have a harmful effect on health, and so astronauts will have to engage in intensive exercise to retain bone and muscle mass.”

To this end, they turned their outdoor ventures into a combination of exercise and work. In addition to walking along rocky, uneven terrain in their 23 kg (50 lbs) suits and exploring caves, they also experimented with extracting water from the extremely dry lava rocks – which are about as dry as those on Mars. All of these activities helped the crew stay focused and active, and also promoted a sense of cohesion and cooperation.

Two members of Mission V conducting a geological study using mock space suits. Credit: NASA/Hi-SEAS

As Heinicke explained, the benefits of this type of research go beyond space exploration, and include any situation where groups are forced to work together under what she calls “ICE conditions – isolated, confined, extreme”. But in the end, it’s chief goal is to prepare human beings for eventual trips to Mars. As she indicated, this includes members of the general public, and not just professional astronauts:

“The question of whether life exists or ever existed on the red planet is one of the key reasons for sending an expedition there. But even aside from that, human beings have always endured hardships in the service of understanding our own planet. Non-government initiatives such as Mars One or the ambitious plans for SpaceX show that many people are ready to take on the rigors of the dangerous journey. Presumably, liftoff is only a matter of time.

“Studies such as HI-SEAS are designed to increase the chances that the first Mars crew will survive and to create a setting in which its members can concentrate on seeking out signs of life rather than squandering their energies in conflicts and petty competition.”

The current Hi-SEAS mission (Mission VI) began on Thursday, February 15th, 2018, and was scheduled to last until October of this year. Unfortunately, the mission had to be scrubbed after four days when a member of the crew was injured and had to be evacuated. NASA and the University of Hawaii are investigating the incident, which the crew claims involved one of their members suffering an electric shock.

The Hi-SEAS habitat, showing the solar panels and generator the crews rely on for electricity. Credit: Hi-SEAS

The crew member was released from hospital and apparently is in fine condition. Nevertheless, this latest incident shows how things can go wrong during a mission, and highlights the need for self-sufficiency among crew members since they are so far removed from Earth. As Bill Wiecking, the HI-SEAS tech-support lead and the energy-lab director at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy, commented at the time:

“We’ve learned all the ways that you can kill yourself on Mars, and we’ve learned to prevent those things. So it’s been very, very valuable, because it’s way better to do it here, where you can drive up and go, ‘Oh gosh, a water valve opened up and now you don’t have any water.’ Instead of on Mars, where it’s like, ‘You don’t have any water, you guys are gonna die in a couple of days.’”

The lessons learned from Hi-SEAS and other such simulations are sure to inform the first crewed missions to Mars, not to mention plans for establishing permanent settlements there. When the first “Martians” do finally set up shop on the Red Planet, we can imagine that their lives will consist of plenty of hard work and exercise. And when they get into trouble, they will have to fall back on their training and work together to get out of it.

Further Reading: NASA – Earth Observatory, Scientific American, Walking on the Red Dust, The Atlantic

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