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Earthly concerns at Mars camp

Miles O'Brien in Devon Island, Canada, where researchers are simulating an expedition to Mars  

CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien and producer Linda Saether are in Devon Island, Canada, where NASA and other researchers are taking part in The Haughton-Mars Project, a NASA-led program researching the Haughton impact crater in the Canadian high arctic. The area is said to be similar to Mars and may give insights into the possibilities of living in the extreme environment of the red planet. O'Brien is reporting live from Devon Island this week on CNN via videophone. Additionally, will offer two webcasts at Thursday, July 19, and Friday, July 20, at 11:30 a.m. EDT.

SUNDAY, JULY 15 -- DEVON ISLAND, Nunavut (CNN) -- If you can fit it into a Twin Otter, it will probably fly. We did, and it did.

Our 16 cases, more than a thousand pounds worth of gear, made its way onto the fabled twin-engine sky-hauler, despite some arched eyebrows by the young co-pilot. But in the left seat, a man with a face weathered by 30,000 hours at the yoke did not even break stride with his pre-flight check when he saw our heavy cases.

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It is 112 nautical miles from Resolute to the ersatz red planet. On the panel mounted Garmin GPS, the three letter identifier for the fix was "MARS." To: MARS, 112 nautical miles, 125 knots. At first, I could not even tell when we went "feet wet." The sea was still scalloped with ice.

Devon is about the size of West Virginia, but there is nary a coal-miner's daughter on this 60,000 square mile island.

We flew straight across the island on a northeasterly track, then straight in to the plateau that sits halfway between the Haughton Mars Project and the Mars Analog Research Station. Landing in an Otter is akin to hitting the deck of a carrier, absent the tail hook. We certainly knew we had arrived.

From there it looked like the opening credits to M*A*S*H. A small armada of ATVs sped in our direction. The Otter was 1,000 pounds lighter in a jiffy.

The Haughton-Mars Project base camp
Producer Linda Saether sets up the gear for CNN broadcasts and webcasts

A canvas tent the size of a one-car garage sits at the edge of the strip. Camp king Pascal Lee offered us the digs for storage. Turns out it is a duplex -- some robot wizards from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University are our tent mates.

It is very wet here, a big surprise given the fact this is a polar desert. Maybe it's the ozone hole, or global warming, or the aurora borealis. Whatever it is, we needed a dry place to set up shop. Fortunately the trio of satellite phones we came with pays no never-mind to canvas. We found the Inmarsat West bird and it acknowledged our presence with gusto. It was a relief since, up until that moment, we could not be absolutely certain we would have the ability to be file any reports while here.

But before we got too far down the TV transmitting road, we spent a little time with the camp manager, John Schutt (pronounced "skutt"). John is bipolar, meaning he spends the northern hemisphere summer in the Arctic and the southern hemisphere summer in the Antarctic.

"Can't stand the warm weather," he confides. During the four months of the year when he is not seeking cooler climes, he checks his mail and does his laundry in Bellingham, Washington.

Pony-tailed with a weathered face, a chipped front tooth and a faded North Face shell patched like a quilt, John seems like a carefree guy with a good sense of humor. But when he started talking about polar bears, he got a little more serious.

Camp manager, John Schutt holds his gun  

"Shoot to kill," he advised. "Nothing worse than a pissed-off bear."

We squeezed the trigger of the 12-gauge pump and hoped we would never face that predicament.

Kill a bear up here, he tells us, and you face a telephone book's worth of paperwork and a bill for $25,000, the going rate for the polar bear hunting licenses issued to members of the Inuit tribe. I'd take the financial mauling any day.

With our bear self-defense course behind us, we set out to tell the world we were here. But once again, one of our boxes failed us. It was the same one that prompted the earlier call to the air-show watching executive in England. This time it was about midnight his time and he did not seem so jolly when I rang him up.

The machine complained of an mysterious error -- it kept telling us to "turn me off." We complied, but to no avail. My friend in Great Britain told us to ignore that silly message. The machine apparently is not entirely forthright.

"Just leave it on for about 5 or 6 minutes," he advised.

We did and were finally in business, live from the Arctic.

In addition to his work covering space for CNN, Miles will be a prime-time anchor on the new Headline News with Andrea Thompson when it premieres on August 6.

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