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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Mars on earth

  


Robin White recording the sound of the wind through the rocks of the Haughton Crater.

MARS on Earth

The recent discovery of huge ice sheets on Mars has scientists excited that one day we could find evidence of microbial life there. But as we think about sending manned missions to look for it new dangers arise that we might infect Mars with life from Earth. Robin White has our story about exploring Mars without taking along unwanted baggage.

Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7

Day 1, 9.00 pm
I arrived in Resolute this morning at 3.30 am. It was bright and sunny when the plane got here, even though we had been warned that because of poor weather there was only a 65% chance of landing. We broke through the fog bank into a patch of sunshine and there below was the frozen sea - looking like nothing so much as turquoise marble. NASA people met me at the airport and whisked me off to the Coop Hotel in Resolute - an imaginative enterprise owned by the whole community of 200 people here.

Once I got going today I went for a walk around town. It’s a small, practical place - not much in the way of decoration. It’s mostly Inuit, but it was founded in 1947 with a Weather Center and each day they still send two weather balloons up into the upper atmosphere.

The town has a store, a post office, a church, a school, perhaps fifty houses, a few warehouses and some offices. Sleds and snowmobiles are everywhere, even though there is no snow in town - it’s mostly rocky and muddy at this time of the year. I kept an eye out for the telling details: two polar bear skins stretched out to dry in the sun, seal skins, and bones - lots of them of all kinds. Whale bones, reindeer antlers, musk ox skull and who knows what else.

After lunch, a little walk down to the beach, by way of a small lake. I spotted quite a few different birds - a snow-white seagull, some shorebirds, a duck and various other things I couldn’t identify. Tiny plants growing in the spaces between the rocks - some poppies, some creeping arctic willow, some saxifrage and various other things.

I had been warned to keep away from the dogs – and at the beach there were great long lines of them chained up. They are sled dogs and not bred for friendliness. Apparently some of them are wolf hybrids. They spend most of the year tied up out in the elements waiting to be fed. Then in the winter they come into action, dragging the sleds across the pack ice. On the beach itself there was a sled pulled up with three fresh killed seals dripping blood into the water. Five more on the beach. I suppose this is dog food.

The frozen sea is quite weird. Today it’s grey outside and if you glance casually up at the sea it looks like a normal ocean - mottled, as if with waves - but it’s completely static and silent. It’s a slightly pinkish grey color and bluish when you get close up to the individual icebergs.

Everything depends on the weather and it changes from minute to minute. At the moment I am waiting to see if I will get to Devon Island today or not. The main NASA group went over to the island two days ago and the intention was to attempt to fly me and some other people in today. But we have already passed our first deadline this afternoon and it may not happen until three hours from now, or even until tomorrow. I’m not sure they will try to fly during the night, even though it’s light 24 hrs a day. People still seem to keep to an ordinary sleep schedule. Will find out.

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Day 2
Managed to fly the 150 km to Devon Island last night at about midnight. They do fly at night and I was very lucky - the only one of the three flights planned that actually arrived. The weather today is very cold - snowing a little bit all day long.

Day 3
Today was much warmer, making life easier. I went down into the Haughton Crater, which is what this whole trip is about. Haughton Crater is a meteor or asteroid crater 15 miles across that was formed 23 million years ago. A rock a half-mile across crashed into the Earth and sterilized the area for miles around. Probably caused forest fires all across North America.

The crater is similar to craters on Mars and the terrain around it bares clues about how any life that once existed on Mars (or still exists today) might have adapted.

I went down into the crater with Charlie Cockell, who is the chief biologist on the Haughton Mars Project. We slogged across the melted permafrost, which had turned to wellie-grabbing mud. At the bottom of the crater we sat near a small lake and Charlie showed me microbes on the rocks and described how they handle ultra-violet radiation in different ways. Apparently the microbes have a liking for the “breccia” or shocked rocks that were formed under the thousand degree heat of the impact of the meteor. The lake was surrounded by “snow-bergs” which occasionally sloughed off parts that fell into the lake.

The interior of the crater is much warmer than the rim, which is where the camp is located. Things are pretty barren in the area around the camp (which is where I am typing this), although I have heard (but not seen) little birds down by the river. Also a seagull came over the camp yesterday briefly.

I was out by the river this morning recording the sound of flowing water and drips coming from the underside of the snowbank when I saw a fly wandering along the river bank. I was quite excited to see something alive, but of course the little birds must be finding things to eat. Anyway, down inside the crater it was quite different. There were many little plants, tufts of brown grass, mosses. One species of saxifrage was in full bloom - quite large pink flowers out before the leaves have even got going. Also saw a little shorebird down there and noticed the scat from Arctic foxes.

I did an interview with Pascal Lee who is the principal investigator here. We walked up into a nearby valley which was formed under an ice sheet (this is an analog to Mars) and we talked about exploring. It was sort of like talking to Christopher Columbus before he set sail. The guy is driven by the idea of a manned mission to Mars. He’s not sure if he’ll be the one who goes, but he has given his whole life over to making it happen. He described a mission to Mars as the “mother of all camping trips.” If the experience of this expedition here in the Arctic is anything to go by - with all its inherent difficulties - he is right.

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Day 4
This afternoon I climbed up into some of the valleys near here. We have to travel in twos and carry a gun for fending off polar bears. I don’t think there is any real danger - apparently it’s too early in the season for them to be this far in land. The sea ice is only just breaking up. This is what drives them onto the shore.

I climbed up with Andy Schuerger who studies plant pathology at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He’s the contamination expert here at the camp. He’s studying how widely the human presence here contaminates the environment with microbes and whether they survive from year to year through the hostile Arctic winters. It’s a question that reflects on any habitat that might be established on Mars. What will happen when e. coli and staphyloccocus get loose on Mars? Andy thinks nothing much because Mars is cold and hostile much like the environment here. He’s trying to show that human bugs can’t survive in cold places.

The valleys are formed by meltwater under an ice sheet a mile thick - so they are glacial but are missing some of the ordinary features of glaciated land - no glacial polish, no increase in size as you go downstream. But they have some bizarre features - the bottoms of the valleys actually go up and down - the idea is that the water under the icesheet actually flows uphill sometimes - under pressure from the ice, just like water in a pipe in a house. Quite beautiful - incredibly rocky and rugged. Lots of fossils - it used to be a tropical reef in the Silurian.

The midnight sun is strange - I find myself conducting interviews at 9 or 10 at night because that’s when there’s time. Suddenly it’s midnight and everyone has gone to bed, but I’m still bopping around in the broad daylight wondering where everybody is.

What tends to happen later is that planes arrive at 3 or 4 in the morning bringing supplies. This doesn’t affect me - I just curl deeper into my sleeping bag. But it’s a sign of how things work up here. There has been much bad weather and there continues to be in other parts of the Arctic, so the pilots fly when they can. Even now people here are still waiting for supplies that have been in Resolute for weeks. I was here a day or two before the propane resupply arrived and THAT WAS COLD.

It’s been warmer weather for a couple of days though. Now it’s a bit quieter because the scientists involved in living in the Mars habitat simulation are actually locked in there for three days. With interruptions from the Discovery Channel camera crew who are in there filming. There are about as many media people here as there are scientists from NASA and VIPs from the Mars Society and so on. It’s a bit of a circus.

Being around the television people makes me very glad to be doing radio - I have so much less equipment than they do. I can grab the scientists, take them aside for an hour and I’m done. The television people take all day and four people to accomplish the same thing.

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Day 5
I’m pretty much done with my work here and I’m hoping to catch the next plane to Resolute Bay where I will wait for a day or so before catching a jet out at 4 am on Thursday morning. However, the forecast is calling for a cold snowy storm coming in tonight and into tomorrow, so we’re not sure if there will be a twin otter flight tomorrow or not. We’ll see.

Spent the morning at “the hab” - the Martian habitat simulation. It was amusing and fascinating. There is a level on which the whole thing is goofy - adults jumping around in space suits and living together in a small space to see what it might be like on Mars. A big dress-up game. What makes it really silly is that there are so many media people like me coming and going into this “sim” (simulation).

I’m the least of it though - the Discovery Channel has a whole crew of about seven. Compare that with only seven “astronauts” in the “sim”. And the television producer is rather precious. His crew is here for three more weeks, but he was jumping out of his seat because I wanted to spend an hour recording in “the hab” which he was afraid would cut into his access to the scientists. So the poor scientists are trying to pretend they are in isolation on Mars but dealing with the terrestrial media in all its splendor.

I was talking to the two people who were going on “EVA” (extra vehicular activity) and they could both see the goofy side but said that once they were locked into the airlock for the 30 minute “pre-breathe” (during which astronauts adapt to the pressure) it actually felt very realistic to them and they started to face real challenges that astronauts face, like trying to manipulate tools with fat gloves on.

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Day Six
The media problems continued today with the scientists in the “hab” taking up being disgruntled about the presence of the television crew. The T.V. people have an annoying habit of asking you to do things over again. So let’s say a scientist drops something (an actual example) and says “Oh damn, I dropped my screwdriver,” the cameraman might say “I didn’t catch that, can you do that over?” The scientist in question (actually, I think an engineer working on the construction of the “hab”) in this case revolted and said, “Oh #$%%$&^ s&*t, I dropped something.”

Later in the day I took a walk with one of the many English scientists here - Gordon Osinski, a geologist who studies meteor impact craters. We took one of the camp dogs and the polar bear gun and climbed up onto some bluffs near the camp for him to measure the rocks to see how much the stratified limestone layers had been upset by the impact 23 million years ago.

Then said goodbye to people and went up to the runway to await the arrival of the twin otter to Resolute. John Schutt, the man who runs the operations at the camp, came with me and while we were waiting for the plane I did a quick final interview with him. In December and January he goes to Antarctica and picks up meteorites from the wind-scoured Antarctic ice sheet. He was leading the team that picked up ALH84001, the Martian meteorite that NASA scientists claim shows signs of life on Mars. The plane was an hour late, so a few of us stood outside in the cold talking and joking around.

The young female pilot of the plane was wonderful on the way back. She flew over the camp a couple of times so that we could take photographs. We crossed the island which has lots of melting snow which outlines the shapes of the land itself, following the contours of the hills and the valleys. The sun is low and so it doesn’t get into the deeper parts of the island. I took lots of photographs of the abstract shapes formed by the snow, the brown bare earth and the blue rivers that flowed through.

Then we went out across the sea ice and the pilot took the plane down low to look for bears. We saw lots of seals hauled out near their breathing holes, but no polar bears. I wanted to see some as much as I have wanted anything in a long time, but I also decided to enjoy the whole experience whatever we saw. So it was that wonderful turquoise marble again that I described earlier. And little seals looking almost like slugs lying around on the ice. Now I am hoping for a window seat and clear weather on the flight back to Yellowknife (leaving at 4.30 am on Thursday).

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Day 7
Back in Resolute I took a walk out to the Thule archaeological site. The Thule people pre-date the Inuits by about 2000 years and the homesites are similar to prehistoric sites in the western parts of the United Kingdom - holes in the ground surrounded by rocks. In this case whale bones arch over to form the roof which might have been covered with walrus skin or rocks and dirt. (Not sure which).

This trip is a funny contrast of the future and the past. On one hand I have been talking to the people who in ten or twenty years will set up a habitat on Mars. On the other hand I have been surrounded by evidence of a prehistoric way of life. While some of the Inuits are as high tech as the rest of us, with computers and email, they still hunt out on the ice, bringing in dead seals and occasionally polar bears which they eat raw. The beach between Resolute and the Thule site out on the point is littered with dead animal parts - bits of teeth and fins, a rotting beluga whale, three dead sled dogs just tossed out on the ice to fall into the sea and rot.

But there are all kinds of parallels between the two worlds. Pascal Lee describes a mission to Mars as a dangerous adventure in which a small band of pioneers will face off against the freezing Martian climate. They will subsist for eighteen months on the planet, explore and come back to tell the tale, assuming that they can generate enough fuel on Mars to start the journey back.

The Thule people knew all about subsistence, cold and survival against the odds. The Inuits know it too. Around cold, the Inuits love to tease Southerners - while we are all bundled up in our fleece and polypropylene with our windshells, they are often outdoors in sweat shirts and cotton pants. They love to say, “It’s not winter!” when confronted with a well-dressed Southerner.

On all levels, the story here has been about the durability of life - the desire that life has to survive and the ways that it seeks out niches of protection - whether it be a skin covered rock house, a pressurized cabin on Mars or a small cynobacteria buried deep in the shocked rock of a crater, using the rock as a shell to keep out the harsh UV radiation of the polar environment.

Lee sees it as an evolutionary process. Having started as microbes, we have eventually evolved intelligence and then a relationship with technology which allows it to conceive of colonizing other planets. The process is the same all the way down the line - survival, protection, finding the advantage. Whether it’s a rock shell, a steel trap (rusting on the beach just up from the sea ice), a ski-doo (gas-powered sledge for speeding across the ice), a Saturn 5 rocket, a Mars habitat, we are learning and adapting, endlessly improving.

On the way back to Resolute I got a ride from the manager of the hotel who was taking some guests on a tour of the highlights of the town. Besides the Thule sites there’s the weather station, the town reservoir and the sewage treatment plant. There’s also a small summer camp of tents out near the Thule settlement which the Inuit use to launch boats when the sea ice has melted out in the straits but not yet in the bay.

One of the adaptations to technology was that the whole town of Resolute was moved from its original location out on the point where the Thules lived, to a more protected spot in the bay itself. The problem was that the old site was in the path of the airport runway and the town was expected to grow because of oil drilling and mining exploration. That didn’t happen (too costly and environmentally risky) and so the locals are still out fishing and hunting and still need to access the open water rather than the open skies.

And that’s about it - stayed up late finishing my script, slept on the sofa at the hotel till 2.15 am. Hustled out to the airport and sat with the hotel manager who told me about the handful of towns on the islands around here that follow a similar way of life to Resolute. Got on the plane with a doctor from Mission Control in Houston and Schuerger, the microbiologist from Florida. Flew up over the Thule site and out aross the pack-ice, scanning for polar bears.

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