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Understanding what life might be like on Mars

  - Graphic design by Kiana Haner-Wilk
— image credit: Graphic design by Kiana Haner-Wilk

High on the slopes of a Hawaiian mountain, Ross Lockwood is in the midst of a Martian adventure, taking place some time in the not-so-distant future.

That may sound like something pulled from the opening pages of a low budget sci-fi flick, but the Lake Country man is actually  part of an experiment aimed at developing an understanding of what’s needed for life on Mars. For the last month Lockwood, 27, has been part of a select crew of scientists participating in  a NASA funded simulated mission to Mars. In an 11-metre diameter dome built in a rock quarry on the slopes of Mauna Loa, the space agency will collect the information needed to develop psychological guidelines that will one day be used to select astronauts capable of making a real trip to the red planet.

And while the space agency gets its intel, Lockwood, who is doing his doctorate in condensed matter physics at the University of Alberta, continues with his own research and gets a pretty good impression of life in the far flung reaches of the universe.“Other than the obvious things that we can’t simulate, like gravity, or the things that would be too expensive to simulate, like a pressurized habitat, the Hawaii Space Exploration and Analog Simulation mission (HI-SEAS) really is a high-fidelity Mars simulation,” Lockwood explained.

“We generate our own power from a solar array, we manage our water down to the millilitre, and we are only eating foods that would be considered self-stable.”

The meals they eat are composed from dehydrated meats, fruits and vegetables, which allows for some versatility and creativity.

“The dehydrated chicken that we have is very dry and bland, but because we have powdered milk, spices, and pasta, I was able to create a delicious chicken carbonara using only ingredients we have on hand,” he said, in an email correspondence.

“I may have cheated a little by adding some dehydrated bacon…I’ve always experimented with food back home, but now my life depends on it.”

Another top accomplishment in his culinary arsenal is paprika-lime popcorn seasoning while, on the flip side, Nutella-cheese wraps were panned.

Beyond suffering taste-buds, Lockwood and his five fellow scientists are also feeling what it would be like to deal with the inconveniences of space travel.

For example, they’re simulating the speed-of-light delay between Earth and Mars at their greatest distance.

That means some long waits when he’s browsing the web or sending emails.

“If I browse a website, I actually have to wait 40 minutes for the website to load. Of course, since we are simulating a Mars mission in 2025, there are a lot of neat tricks that allow us to bypass the 40 minute delay,” he said, pointing out that computers may be able to anticipate interests and download news before the user opens the computer, so it’s ready and waiting.

“It’s fun working with systems that might actually be used on a future mission to Mars.

Lockwood and his team are all assigned various tasks within the dome from Mission Control, the way you’d expect a real crew on Mars would have.

“This week we are trying to estimate the volume of the hillside that our dome sits on using only the tools that we have on hand.

“All in all, it makes for a difficult time developing a routine.”

Other assigned tasks have included growing plants, weighing how much trash the team generated and, his ongoing task of figuring out the efficacy of surgical tools created from a 3D printer.

Some days they’re also sent on “spacewalks” that have to be pre-approved by Mission Control.

“Usually a spacewalk takes about two hours, start to finish, and you can expect to be exhausted for the rest of the day,” he said.

One exhausting space-suit wearing adventure is outlined on his website spincrisis.net.

There Lockwood explained how a little problem with a water sensor ballooned into something bigger, and the process required to get things back in order.

“(Fixing) the water sensor wire that had broken involved kneeling on lava rock while crouching over for almost an hour with a 20 kilogram spacesuit on my back,” he said.

“Needless to say, even soaked in sweat and with a sore back, there is nothing like the feeling of accomplishing something that will bring a smile right back to my face.”

When put in a work context, it’s clear that Lockwood is on an amazing adventure.

It’s the type of project that many spend their life striving to contribute to. In fact, he beat out several hundred candidates for the project hosted by the University of Hawaii.

But, there are some things that take a certain amount of fortitude that doesn’t show up in one’s GPA or resume. Imagine living in an environment absent of the sounds and textures that make up everyday life.

“Up here on the side of Mauna Loa we feel extremely isolated. It’s not just isolation from civilization though, we are also very isolated from nature,” he said.

“On a spacewalk, we can expect to see a twig or a lichen clinging to life between the cracks of lava rock, but there’s nary the sound of a bird or a mouse for miles.

“It’s eerily quiet at night with all the habitat systems in their nighttime modes, and the only thing that reminds us that we are actually still on Earth is the occasional rainstorm that accompanies the winds. It’s vastly different than the quiet you experience on a camping trip, up here there isn’t so much as a cricket. Luckily I brought along some recordings of the sounds of nature, which will get me through the four months we are here.”

His fellow scientists, with whom he shares so many traits, are also a big part of what’s making the adventure enjoyable.

“The crew here is really making it a fun experience though, so as much as we are assigned work to do, it’s all things that we’ve grown up dreaming about doing anyway,” he said.

Those dreams were born in Lake Country, where he spent his childhood, Kelowna, where he went to high school, graduating from KSS in 2004, and at the bottom of Okanagan Lake, where he and his sister vied to see who could hold their breath the longest.

“My family paid close attention to my schoolwork, and worked with me to teach me things outside of the regular curriculum,” he wrote.

“I also had some very talented teachers that recognized my interests and worked to challenge me. I have been lucky that my teachers have always encouraged me.

“I recall quite vividly in Grade 7 teaching groups of Grade 2 students about phase transitions in water, from solid to liquid to gas.”

When he broke his wrist and collarbone in Grade 9, he had to miss classes, but a teacher gave class credit for a tiny electronic robot creation.

In Grade 11, he founded an engineering club that built a T-shirt cannon for the school’s sporting events.

“That outside encouragement helped me develop a healthy passion for a broad range of topics, something that led me to where I am today,” he said.

And, while he didn’t picture the Mars simulated trip exactly, he knew something big awaited him.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that we never envisioned doing any other kind of work. Our entire family has always been explorers, and this is just another step along that path.”

Lockwood is three months away from his release from the HI-SEAS project. To follow him, go to spincrisis.net.

kmichaels@kelownacapnews.com

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