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Living on Mars

An online publication from Purdue University’s College of Engineering.

Purdue team leads simulation facility mission.

by Brian Huchel

The air may be breathable, and the location is on planet Earth, but for two weeks a multidisciplinary team of Purdue students and alumni will eat, sleep, work and live like they’re on Mars.

For the second consecutive year, a Purdue team is undergoing a mission at the Mars Desert Research Station facility in Utah, conducting a number of experiments and living life as though stationed on the fourth planet from the sun.

Cesare Guariniello, crew geologist on the 2018 Boilers2Mars team, is team commander this year and an aspiring astronaut. He says improving technical expertise and knowledge is only part of the preparation to travel one day to the red planet.

“It is much more difficult to test oneself in the psychological and social aspects,” says Guariniello, a 2016 School of Aeronautics and Astronautics doctoral program alumnus and current research associate. “Participation at the Mars Desert Research Station gives the team a chance to get as close as possible to an actual mission in space, with a good amount of realism.”

The six-member team was selected by Purdue MARS (Mars Activities and Research Society) to take part in the simulation mission. The team, called MartianMakers, took over control of the research station in January.

In addition to Guariniello, the MartianMakers team consists of Alexandra Dukes (MSAAE ’18), crew journalist; Denys Bulikhov, executive officer and research assistant in industrial engineering; Kasey Hilton (BSChem ’19), crew engineer and senior chemistry major; Ellen Czaplinski, crew geologist and 2016 earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences alumna; and Jake Qiu (BSBME ’18), health and safety officer.

Overall, the mission team represents five different areas in the College of Science and College of Engineering.

The simulation includes a variety of aspects that combine to make the experience as real as possible. The team cannot break simulation during the mission and must don a flight suit and a heavy air pack with helmet every time they perform extravehicular activities.

Accurate protocols must be followed for radio communications, including a large number of daily reports during a two-hour communication window with the volunteers at the Mars Desert Research Station Mission Control Center, Guariniello says. Highly structured daily schedules are used, and the team must work with extremely limited amounts of water, power and communication.

Guariniello says there are a number of experiments and research projects that team members will be working on during the two weeks. Among the work is analysis and mapping of radiation in the station area, crew reaction to stressful situations, the study of germs and contamination of plants/crew in the habitat and analysis of waste produced in the habitat.

Some of the tasks are computer-based, while others will be executed directly at the habitat, such as bacteria collection and sequencing, and waste analysis.

Guariniello says he was able to adapt to the same lifestyle during last year’s mission in a short period of time.

Built near Hanksville, Utah, by The Mars Society in 2001, the desert research station includes a small two-story habitat, an astronomical observatory, and a scientific laboratory and greenhouse.

The Mars Desert Research Station is one of only a few Mars simulation environments around the world.

Members of last year’s Boilers2Mars team exit the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah to conduct experiments. Purdue sent another team to the facility again this year.
Purdue University photo – Cesare Guariniello

The uniform patch for MartianMakers team that is currently at the Mars Desert Research Station.
NASA image

Mars: The Red Planet

  • 1.9x smaller than Earth
  • 2 moons (Phobos and Deimos)
  • 24.6 hours in a martian day
  • 2,106 mile radius
  • 687 Earth days in a martian year


Step 3 – Moon to Mars

Humans have basic needs for food, water, air and shelter. Ecosystems within Earth’s biosphere provide for these needs. As we continue exploring space, and plan expeditions to other planets, NASA is developing ways to support living away from Earth for long periods of time.

Exploration of the moon and Mars is intertwined. The moon provides an opportunity to test new tools, instruments and equipment that could be used on Mars, including human habitats, life support systems and technologies, and practices that could help us build self-sustaining outposts away from Earth. Living on the Gateway for months at a time will also allow researchers to understand how the human body responds in a true deep space environment before committing to the years-long journey to Mars.

In spite of this, there are challenges facing future space pioneers.

Isolation and confinement

Behavioral issues among groups of people crammed in a small space over a long period of time, no matter how well trained they are, are inevitable. Crews will be carefully chosen, trained and supported to ensure they can work effectively as a team for months or years in space.

On Earth we have the luxury of picking up our cell phones and instantly being connected with nearly everything and everyone around us. On a trip to Mars, astronauts will be more isolated and confined than we can imagine. Sleep loss, circadian desynchronization and work overload compound this issue and may lead to performance decrements, adverse health outcomes and compromised mission objectives.

To address this hazard, methods for monitoring behavioral health and adapting or refining various tools and technologies for use in the spaceflight environment are being developed to detect and treat early risk factors. Research is also being conducted in workload and performance, light therapy for circadian alignment, phase shifting and alertness.

Distance From Earth

Perhaps the most apparent hazard is, quite simply, the distance. Mars is, on average, 140 million miles from Earth. Rather than a three-day lunar trip, astronauts would be leaving our planet for roughly three years. While International Space Station expeditions serve as a rough foundation for the expected impact on planning logistics for such a trip, the data isn’t always comparable. If a medical event or emergency happens on the station, the crew can return home within hours. Additionally, cargo vehicles continual resupply the crews with fresh food, medical equipment, and other resources. Once you burn your engines for Mars, there is no turning back and no resupply.

Planning and self-sufficiency are essential keys to a successful Martian mission. Facing a communication delay of up to 20 minutes one way and the possibility of equipment failures or a medical emergency, astronauts must be capable of confronting an array of situations without support from their team on Earth.

Long-term research outposts on the moon or Mars will require more recycling of material. It will be too expensive to resupply food and water. Growing plants for food in lunar or Martian habitats makes sense at many levels. As plants grow, they remove carbon dioxide and replenish oxygen. Decomposers in soil or hydroponics systems can recycle biological waste and provide nutrients for more plant growth. Plants do a good job of purifying water. Researchers are developing biological systems that will allow long-term human habitation in a sealed container. Researchers are also developing improved physical-chemical systems. New packaging materials are also being developed that can go into space and be recycled.

Source: NASA