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Updated at 7:14 a.m., Friday, July 6, 2007

UH scientist's Arctic Mars mission reaches midpoint

News Release

University of Hawai'i at Manoa scientist Kim Binsted, associate professor in the Department of Information and Computer Sciences and one of seven crew members from around the world participating in a four-month Mars simulation that began in May, reports that the crew has reached the halfway point of their mission. Binsted and her crew members will now begin a unique experiment by shifting its operational cycle to Mars time.

"The crew is holding up very well and is getting some excellent science done," said Binsted, who serves as chief scientist on the mission. Binsted's comments were released by UH earlier this week in a news release. "Now that most of the snow has melted, revealing the shape of the crater and the reddish surface, we really feel like we're on Mars. We're learning incredible amounts about the practicalities of exploring Mars."

The long-duration simulated Mars mission on Devon Island in the high Canadian Arctic has been operating successfully for two months. The seven-person crew of the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) has conducted a comprehensive program of geological and microbiological field exploration in the island's Mars-like polar desert, 900 miles from the North Pole, all the while operating under many of the same constraints that human explorers would face on Mars. By doing so, they are learning from direct experience many lessons that will be of critical value when human explorers actually set foot on the red planet.

At this writing, the crew has completed two months of mission simulation on the island, doubling the one-month duration record set by previous crews. The plan is for the crew to continue for two more months, quadrupling the previous record for an active Mars mission simulation.

As Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin explained, "This is an utterly unique experiment that goes far beyond anything that anyone has ever done before. In contrast to the isolation studies done by the Russian Space Agency, for example, our crews are not sitting in a room in the middle of a major city playing chess for weeks on end. Rather, they are being tasked to undertake a tough program of actual field exploration, doing real science under risky conditions hundreds of miles from the nearest human settlement in one of the most hostile environments on Earth. It is by taking on challenges like this that people are going to learn how to explore on Mars."

Halfway into the mission, the crew is coping well, and making excellent progress on a range of field research. In particular, they are gathering data on microbial life in soil, snow and lakes, characterizing the changes as the Arctic season shifts from spring into summer. They are also comparing geological features seen on Mars, such as polygonal patterns and "weeping cliffs," with similar features found on Devon Island, in order to better understand conditions on the red planet.

Chris McKay, of NASA Ames, the remote science principal investigator for this expedition, said, "This expedition is doing an in-depth study of the transition of permafrost ground from winter cold to summer warmth. This data will be relevant for Mars but also to understanding the response of the Arctic to global warming on Earth. There is a lot to learn up there in the land of the midnight sun."

While sample collection is ongoing, the focus has shifted to analysis of the baseline data and lab analysis of the samples. According to crew biologist Kathryn Bywaters, "The fieldwork has been hard but very gratifying, and working in the Arctic, with its obvious parallels to what it would be like to work on Mars, has been inspiring."

This expedition is unique in that the crewmembers have been able to maintain a rigorous simulation for an unprecedented period of time. The human factors data being collected is therefore invaluable. There are five human factors experiments currently under way, including comprehensive sleep and exercise studies.

Yesterday, the crew began a unique experiment and advanced the intensity of the simulation a dramatic step further by switching onto "Mars time." The crew will live according to the Martian day (or "sol"), which is 39 minutes longer than the 24-hour Earth day. This will cause the crew to drift out of synch with the rest of Earth, gradually returning to Earth time after 36 days. Because the FMARS station is at 75 degrees north, it has no night and very little light variation in the month of July, so the day-night operational cycle can be rescheduled to correspond to that on Mars. This will be the first time that a group, in realistic space exploration conditions, has lived and worked according to the longer Martian day, and researchers want to know how well crewmembers adapt, and if there are any negative effects. Recognizing and compensating for any such effects will be essential for future expeditions to Mars.

To simulate the longer Martian daily cycle, the crew will move its own clock backward 39 minutes per day, and black out the hab windows between their clock's 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. to simulate night. They will schedule meals, sleep cycles, and outdoor work according to this clock. The factors to be investigated include not merely the physiological effects (if any) from switching to a Martian daily cycle for long durations, but also the operational effects of using different, and constantly shifting, clocks on the telescience collaboration between the crew (on Mars time) and the various teams supporting the mission (on Earth time). Such an experiment is unprecedented.

The FMARS crew is a seven person joint Canadian-American team. It is commanded by Melissa Battler, a Canadian geologist, with Matt Bamsey, a Canadian engineer, as Executive Officer. The crew also includes Americans James Harris (chief engineer), Kathryn Bywaters (biologist), Canadian geologist Simon Auclair, and American-Canadian dual citizens Ryan Kobrick (engineer) and Kim Binsted (chief scientist). In conducting their field exploration, the crew is supported by a Science Advisory Group (SAG), an Engineering team, and a Mission Support team. The SAG includes exobiologists Chris McKay, Penelope Boston, Shannon Rupert, geologist Gordon Osinski, and human factors scientist Judith Lapierre. The Engineering Team is led by Paul Graham and Emily Colvin, and the Mission Support Team is led by Tony Muscatello, Robert Zubrin, and Julie Edwards.

Daily reports and photos sent back by the crew are posted on the Mars Society website at www.fmars2007.org. A complete report on the historic mission will be presented by the crew in person at the 10th International Mars Society Convention, which will be held August 30-Sept 2, 2007 at UCLA, Los Angeles.