Press Release

Postcard from Mars: ESA physicist-engineer Vladimir Pletser on Devon Island

By SpaceRef Editor
July 9, 2001
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When most people go on vacation, they want to forget all about their jobs.
But ESA physicist-engineer Vladimir Pletser, who develops ISS payloads and
organizes zero-gravity parabolic flights for the agency, is taking the
ultimate working holiday. This week, he’s off to Mars.

It’s not exactly Mars, of course. Manned missions to the Sun’s fourth
planet — currently the brightest object in Europe’s evening skies — will
have to wait a while yet. Instead, Pletser will be heading for the Arctic,
where throughout the summer crews of scientists will spend ten-day stints
in a cramped habitat that closely simulates a Mars lander.

The habitat — built by the Mars Society with privately raised funds — is
on Devon Island, situated at latitude 75 degrees North in Canada’s Nunavut
Territory. The chilly terrain, snow-free in summer, is about as close an
analogue to the Martian surface as exists on Earth. Obviously, there is no
way to mimic the Martian surface gravity of just 0.38 g or the planet’s
thin, unbreathable carbon dioxide atmosphere. But the dry, cold, rocky
desert that is Devon Island meets most other criteria.

The place is big, too: at 66,800 sq km (almost exactly twice the size of
Belgium) it is the world’s largest uninhabited island. Devon Island also
contains the Haughton impact crater, a 20-km scar on the landscape gouged
out by a giant meteorite some 23 million years ago, which closely resembles
similar craters on Mars.

During their simulated visit to Mars, the men and women in each six-member
crew will have to live and work together in a space not much bigger than
a camper van. There will be daily EVAs (Extra-Vehicular Activities), for
which the scientists will have to struggle into “spacesuits” and exit
their temporary home through an airlock. To add more Martian realism,
communications with “mission control” will be subject to a 20-minute delay
that matches the lightspeed lag that any real Mars expedition would have
to contend with. As for links to home, the explorers can hope to send an
email every 24 hours or so.

“The first goal is to test the feasibility of a Mars mission with existing
technology,” says Pletser. “But we want to do some science, too.” He will
be performing an important geophysics experiment himself: an attempt to
detect subsurface water by means of seismic waves. Encumbered in an EVA
suit with limited visibility, he won’t find the work easy. But it is
exactly the sort of task that will face future Martian explorers.

Compared with future Mars astronauts, the Devon Island explorers will have
things easy. They will be isolated for ten days, not two years or more, and
emergency help will be a good deal closer than 40 million miles away. But
their experience will be an important addition to the store of knowledge
that will make a Mars mission possible. And the Devon Island teams have to
face a very special threat that will not trouble real Martian explorers:
polar bears. To compensate, though, Pletser and his colleagues will have
a unique support system. As they struggle sweating through their EVAs, an
Inuit hunter will be watching their backs.

Vladimir Pletser hopes to keep a diary of his mission, which begins on 8
July. His diary updates will be available on this web site from 9 July.

Mars Diary

* En route for “Mars”

Related articles

* Europe goes to Mars — preparations are well under way

* Europe plays a major part in future Mars exploration

* The future of manned spaceflight

* Life on Mars?

* What we know about Mars

Related Links

* The Mars Society

* The Haughton impact crater


[Image 1:]
View from Habitat window. Photo: Marc Boucher/SpaceRef.

[Image 2:]
Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station — April 2001. Photo: MARS SOCIETY.

[Image 3:]
Vladmir Pletser in Resolute Bay.

SpaceRef staff editor.