Yes, we are going to Mars (nearly)


At the beginning of February 2014, six members of a multinational research team will spend two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, the USA, pretending they are on a mission to Mars (and I will be one of them).

A ten-metre in diametre cylindrical habitat will be our home and workplace. Every time, we decide to leave the base, we will have to put our space suits on and leave through the station’s airlock.

The team will examine the station’s structure and its power systems using advanced computer modelling – a method used by aerospace engineers to verify designs of spacecraft and aircraft.

If someone breaks a window of your house on Earth or if the roof starts leaking, it’s definitely bothersome, but you have time to fix it. On Mars, on the contrary, every fault in the habitat’s structure or its systems could mean a death sentence for the crew.

Mars is a hostile planet. The average temperature on its surface is around minus 60 degrees C and the warmest it ever gets in summer around the equator is plus 20.

The thin Martian atmosphere is not breathable. Unlike the Earth’s atmosphere, the Martian gas cover contains only 0.15 per cent of oxygen. The atmospheric pressure on the Martian surface is some 600 pascals, about 0.6 per cent of Earth’s atmospheric pressure at sea level, meaning everyone who steps out of a pressurized Martian station without a protective space suit will die immediately with his blood starting to boil.

The future Martian base will thus be as important for astronauts’ survival on the Red Planet, as was the mythical Noah’s Ark for the survival of people and animals in the Biblical flood.

And that’s what our mission will be all about! Named RAR (for Redundancy and Reliability of Martian Bases), the project will evaluate whether the structure of the station is sturdy and durable enough to withstand continuous exposure to extreme Martian radiation without the construction materials degrading too quickly.

The team will also assess whether the habitat has a good chance of surviving a Great Martian Dust Storm and if needed, will design improvements to the structure.

About every ten years, atmospheric turbulences on Mars develop into a giant dust storm that encircles the entire planet. Sun disappears for several months and strong winds buffet the station.

Thanks to computer modelling, engineers can test how the station will fare in such a situation and enhance the base and its surroundings to make sure the first coming Great Martian Dust Storm doesn’t mean the mission end.

The project was put together by Ondrej Doule, a Czech-born space architect currently based at the Florida Institute of Technology, who will serve as the mission’s commander. A total number of four engineers with experience in aerospace will take care of the habitat and hopefully keep all systems running despite the feared Martian Dust Storm – Martin Kubicek and ELif Oguz, are PhD candidates from the University of Strathclyde, Vratislav Saleny is a Czech entrepreneur, computer modelling expert and designer of habitats for extreme environments. The last of our four engineers is Lucie Poulet, currently a PhD candidate at the German Aerospace Centre. Lucie is an expert in space greenhouses and will be taking care of the precious plants in the Mars Desert Research Station’s greenhouse.

I am the crew’s journalist, so most of the time, I will be running around in my space suit, trying not to drop a camera (I guess those thick cumbersome space gloves will be quite a challenge).

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