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Mars 'colonists' undaunted by bad luck, punishing weather

The first panel of the Mars Society habitat was erected Friday  

In this story:

Seeking refugee in the Cathedral

'Blows your mind how similar they look'

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(CNN) -- Battered buildings. Freezing rains. Endless sunlight. Despite facing such hardships, scientists simulating life on Mars have pushed the limits of red planet science on a barren island in the Arctic.

Taking part in their first research expedition to Devon Island, a Canadian hinterland with haunting similarities to Mars, a handful of Mars Society members are trying to salvage their primary mission this week.


The group had planned to construct and live in a prototype Mars habitat. But their hopes were dashed earlier this month when a fifth and final cargo airdrop by a U.S. Marines cargo plane damaged part of the structure.

"I've heard all sorts of speculation, but unless you are an expert and saw the paradrop, speculation is useless," wrote society member Marc Boucher in a Web site report, referring to the group's chances of moving forward.

Undaunted, the team on Friday began partially erecting the habitat but will forgo living in it as planned this summer.

A non-profit group dedicated to exploring and settling Mars, the society has spent more than a year developing the station, which it billed beforehand as the "world's first fully simulated Mars base."

Despite the loss of several panels, the society hopes to test various habitat components now and complete construction next summer, which would then allow Mars "colonists" to live and work in the enclosed environment.


Seeking refuge in the 'Cathedral'

Meanwhile, dozens of planetary scientists working from a nearby base have struggled with their own challenges as they conduct fieldwork on the island, an icy, rocky tundra that remains bathed in light night and day during the Arctic summer.

The summer weather has not cooperated. Unusually cold and wet weather replete with snow, sleet and heavy winds have slowed down the researchers on the fourth consecutive NASA summer field session.

"The winds are stronger than I expected and it is abnormally cold for an Arctic 'summer,'" Boucher wrote.

During one recent storm, only two scientists braved the freezing cold to conduct outside research. Others huddled in the "Cathederal," a spacious tent that serves as the main dining and social hall. Some play cards. Others work on their laptops, covered in layers of fine Devon Island dust that threatens to damage the machines.

When weather permits, NASA planetary geologists and biologists poke and prod the rocks and waterways of the island to dig up clues about terrestrial and perhaps martian natural history.

They collect sediment in Comet Lake to search for diatoms, microorganisms whose skeletal remains allow scientists to reconstruct past climates. They take samples from an ancient hydrothermal vent inside Haughton Crater, a large impact crater that dominates the landscape and attracts the most scientific attention.

Devon Island was chosen because it closely resembles the landscape of Mars. And no area looks more like the red planet than the crater.

'Blows your mind how similar they look'

Haughton Crater, formed 23 million years ago, is used for surveys by the researchers because of its similarity to martian craters  

"If you compared the 1976 Mars Viking probe images to parts of this area, you would swear you were on Mars," Boucher wrote.

"It blows your mind how similar they look," echoed Kelly Snook, a NASA engineer managing the project.

Planetary biologists think that hardy microorganisms that exist in the barren, cold desert could resemble life that does or has existed on Mars.

The crater studies could help researchers in "understanding where hydrothermal sites might be found on Mars and what signs of life might be preserved at those sites," wrote NASA scientist Pascal Lee in a field report posted online.

But they must pay heed to uniquely Earth-bound life forms as well. Besides caribou, Devon Island occasionally hosts other large wandering mammals -- polar bears.

"Hopefully they won't be attracted to the site this year. But we have had visits in the past," Snook said.

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Mars images reveal elegant polarity of ice caps
March 9, 2000

The Mars Society
NASA Haughton-Mars Project

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