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Haughton Crater: The Most Mars-like Place on Earth!

The Mars Institute’s Dr Pascal Lee writes for Dazed about spending his summers in a remote meteorite crater

In Dazed’s recent Space Special, we interviewed Dr Pascal Lee about the need for a manned mission to Mars – a three and a half year journey through deep space. In preparation for this awe-inspiring business of exploring other planets in our lifetime, Lee explains here why he and his team of researchers have been spending their summers in a 20-kilometre wide crater on a remote island deep inside the Arctic Circle:

For the past 15 years, I have been going up to the Arctic every summer to study one of the most Mars-like places on Earth, Devon Island. Devon is the world’s largest uninhabited island – it is about the size of Croatia. When we are on Devon, we are its population.

Devon Island is home to Haughton Crater, a mighty 20 km-wide meteorite impact crater that formed 39 million years ago when an asteroid or a comet – we are still not sure – slammed into our planet. Haughton is the only known crater on Earth that is located in a polar desert, an environment that is at once very cold, dry, rocky, dusty, packed with underground ice, and drenched in UV light.

The similarities with Mars don’t stop here. Aside from Haughton Crater, Devon Island offers us an astounding array of other geological features that look just like what we see on Mars – canyons, gullies, valley networks, rock glaciers, polygonal terrain, ancient lakebeds, and more.

I probably sound like a discount travel agent, but Devon is quite simply “Mars on Earth”.

Our project, the NASA Haughton-Mars Project, is an international team effort with researchers and students from all over the world participating each year. The project is run by the Mars Institute, in collaboration with the SETI Institute, and two space research non-profits. Our base camp, the Haughton-Mars Project Research Station, has become the largest privately operated polar research station in the world.

One of the most important things we have learned from Devon Island is that Mars was probably never a warm and wet planet as is often believed, but instead a world that has always been climatically frigid, much as it is today, except for a few short episodes of dampness when the planet’s ground would have warmed up following large impacts, or volcanic activity.

Although perhaps less romantic than the classic view that Mars was once balmy and Earth-like, a “cold and only occasionally wet Mars” would still be a life-friendly place.

In the harsh Arctic of the earth, we find microbes living inside rocks and underground, where they hide from the brunt of the polar elements: the extreme cold, the extreme dry, and the UV. Maybe that’s what they are doing on Mars as well...

But we go to Devon Island not just to study the place, but also to use it in preparation for the future. We take new robotic rovers, robotic drills and even robotic aircraft with us to test them as new concepts for Mars exploration.

We are also planning human exploration. With two Humvees on Devon Island – driven there via sea-ice on rather epic journeys – we are able to simulate how we will one day explore Mars (and to some extent the Moon and asteroids as well) using pressurized rovers. Think of these as Martian motorhomes.

My most vivid experience from all these years on Devon, however, comes from testing future spacesuits. I will never forget the first time I tried one on there.

Once the spacesuit engineers locked and sealed my helmet bubble, I turned around and found myself facing the bleak, desolate and rugged landscape of Devon Island with no one else in sight.

Then it really hit me.

I was on Mars.

The Intergalactic Issue of Dazed & Confused is out now