NASA Mars Mission: Scientists Head To Hawaii To Simulate Mission Conditions

NASA wants to make sure its Mars mission, whenever it takes place, runs as smoothly as possible. The U.S. space agency is currently at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, beginning tests on technologies it hopes to use in crewed missions to the Red Planet.

NASA has long been working on plans to send humans on a crewed mission to Mars while hoping to find out for sure whether the planet is really capable of hosting life. Tentatively, this may take place more than a decade from now; NASA’s own website states that its goal is for the mission to take place sometime in the 2030s. Although that’s quite a while away from now, the agency is determined to get its ducks in a row well before then with the help of multiple practice missions, including the latest one in Hawaii.

A report from the Hawaii Tribune-Herald says that NASA researchers will be practicing for future missions, collecting rock samples, and preparing for what may be to come in the future. Researcher John Hamilton, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, told the publication about one of the main concerns in such a practice run – some rocks that may house living bacteria may be contaminated.

“Really, the whole reason of going to Mars is to see if there’s life there,” said Hamilton. “There’s a lot of great geology. But are we alone?”

NASA’s Mars mission preparations are covered by the ongoing Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains project, or BASALT for short. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the mission will last for two weeks, with geologists and biologists working together at Mauna Ulu and looking for ways to stop the aforementioned rocks from getting contaminated. As NASA tries to see if extraterrestrial life is possible on Mars, the agency wants to avoid false positives or missed positives and plans to do this through the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument, a device that spots bio-signals with very little risk of contamination.

The Christian Science Monitor report adds that the BASALT mission will accurately simulate crewed NASA Mars missions in many ways. These include delaying communication with mission control and the fact that Hawaii has many volcanic ridges and geographical features that accurately mimic Mars’ own surface geology. The mission’s name is quite apropos, as basalt is the most common volcanic rock, as well as the same mineral that makes up a good chunk of the Martian surface.

A report from Popular Mechanics (c/o the Associated Press) also cites UH-Hilo’s Hamilton, who provided additional information on the specifics of BASALT, which runs on funding and support from both UH-Hilo and the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES).

According to Hamilton, participants in Project BASALT won’t wear any spacesuits, although the project will come with its own “mission control” at Kilauea Military Camp. NASA will also be assisted by “as many as 20” UH-Hilo students.

NASA’s preparation for its planned Mars mission doesn’t just include refining its research technology, just like it’s doing in Project BASALT. In an earlier report, the Christian Science Monitor described NASA’s earlier HI-SEAS project. This mission took place at Hawaii’s iconic volcano Mauna Loa and was designed to test the psychological thresholds astronauts may have to face during a Mars mission.

“Psychological research in prisons strongly suggests that solitary confinement can have a negative impact on decision-making and emotional health. The same is likely true in deep space: studies of crew members on the International Space Station have found that on prolonged space journeys isolation may have negative effects on astronaut performance.”

Speaking to the Christian Science Monitor in August, NASA advisor and University of Minnesota psychologist Gloria Leon expounded on the importance of the HI-SEAS mission. She explained that a trip to Mars could represent “boredom” and “monotony” for astronauts, as Earth would no longer be in view, with certain stimuli such as the “smells of nature (and) food cooking” won’t be accessible to crew members who may represent NASA in a Mars mission in the future.

[Featured Image by Karin Stanton/AP Images]

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