MIT students simulate life on Mars

Two engineering graduate students set up camp in Utah's desert to live like astronauts for two weeks.

It used to be that only a select few scientists could train to become an astronaut, and then even fewer were chosen to venture into space. But now, with the declining influence of NASA and the rise of the commercial space industry, seemingly every private citizen and their mother wants to go into space one day.

Life on Mars, so far visited only by robotic rovers, would be no day at the beach. NASA/JPL

For two students at MIT, that day is already here--in Utah. Engineering graduate students Zahra Khan and Phillip Cunio--both from MIT's department of Aeronautics and Astronautics--have set up a site in the Utah desert near Hanksville that simulates conditions on Mars. They've been living in a footlocker-sized container, wearing spacesuits, recycling their own water and eating freeze-dried food since Feb. 17.

Everything is outfitted with radio-frequency ID tags, so that their system can alert them if supplies run low or are misplaced. The two have even sent e-mail, but there's a lag of 20 minutes before it reaches the recipient. That's the time it takes for radio waves to travel to and from the Red Planet.

The goal of the project, which will last two weeks, is to develop a "smart" carrier for use in fieldwork research in remote expeditions, including planetary exploration.

"The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is an analog simulation facility. This means it's in a place that's a lot like Mars and so we pretend we're actually on Mars in order to practice living and working there," according to Cunio, who's keeping a blog on the project.

Yet it's not quite like Mars. His partner Khan aborted the mission halfway through to fly to Amsterdam for a job interview with the European Space Agency.

Find reports on the mission via the MDRS Webcam and on Cunio's blog.

 

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