Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal 18 July 2003: Wind

By SpaceRef Editor
October 13, 2003
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Click on Image for larger view. Images Copyright
NASA HMP-2003/SpaceRef

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The Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse after Summer 2003 upgrades.
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Satellite antenna on greenhouse. This allows us to communicate with the greenhouse after all humans have left Devon Island.
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Base Camp on Talos IV, Star Trek episode “The Cage”. [Copyright] Paramount Pictures
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Looking south at Base Camp. Comm Tent (L), Mess Tent (R), Mars-1 Humvee (Center).
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Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse looking east towards The Fortress. Propane tanks on North side of greenhouse used to maintain temperatures once all humans have left the island
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“Chariot” from “Lost in Space”, [Copyright] 20th Century Fox
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Mars-1 Humvee moments after arrival at Base Camp after a traverse of Devon Island.

It is just after 10:00 PM and I am sitting in the Science Tent. Outside the winds are blowing constantly with constant gusts over 50 KPH. The wind chill is -1C. The winds are so intense that the entire tent shakes constantly – including the desk I am sitting at. More than once the tent door has blown open. Next to this tent is the large Planetary Society dome tent which houses the NASA Ames Research Center airplane team. The tent was starting to move a bit, hinting at a predilection to become airborne, so Base Camp manager John Schutt anchored the tent to two 200 kg ATVs.

The other day I was walking through Base Camp from one place to another and experienced a familiar memory – a tenuous feeling that this place reminded me of somewhere else. Until now I had yet to put my finger on this memory exactly. Today it struck me. Those of you out there who are true Trekkies may recall the ground of stranded scientists that the Enterprise found on Talos IV – with gear strewn about and the wind blowing in the background. Well, this place is often a lot like that. Then again our greenhouse, with its brushed metal and curved plastic exterior, looks a lot like the “Chariot” used on “Lost In Space” too. Given the fact that the HMP’s Mars-1 Hummer (complete with treads ala the Chariot) pulled into camp yesterday, we have lots of visual SciFi echoes bouncing around today.

So far no one’s personal tent seems to have been affected. I went out of the way to make sure my tent had robust anchors so I know mine will be OK. The new solar arrays for the greenhouse as well as the temporary airlock are solid as a rock. When you enter the greenhouse (as I did to get the weather conditions) you are almost unaware of the fury outside. Not only is the sound dampened, but it is 23 degrees inside and there are absolutely no vibration from the wind.

When I designed the support platform for the greenhouse last year, I sought to over-engineer it such that the structure would never be toppled or seriously affected by even the worst winds. Between the sheer mass of the greenhouse and its lumber platform, a dozen aircraft cables with anchors drilled into the permafrost with a strength of several tons, and a couple of tons of rocks piled around its base, this thing isn’t going anywhere. When we returned this year and made an initial examination, the structure had only one crack in the Lexan (cause unknown) and no shift whatsoever in its foundation.

None the less, the wind, when it gets going like this, can cause a lot of problems – the most vexing being the inability of planes to come in and land. When it gets fierce enough, it can also make sleeping a bit of a problem since it turns your tent into a tambourine. Given the way things are blowing tonight, I am not going to get a full night’s sleep.


The past few days have been rather hectic. In addition to being somewhat under the weather myself (more on that later), a lot has been going on. Personally, I had several simple construction tasks – I modified a screen door left here last year from initial greenhouse construction so as to have solid Lexan panels. I also built a small platform to support several hundred kilos of high capacity batteries.

Meanwhile, the University of Guelph/CSA/Simon Fraser University team erected a photovoltaic array, dug the foundation for a windmill, built a temporary airlock outside the greenhouse, installed heaters, fans, and vents inside the greenhouse and wired the entire facility up with sensors and control systems. They also added a satellite communication antenna which will allow us to communicate – and control – the greenhouse once everyone has left the island.

Two plant growth trays were also set up by PhD student Tom Graham. One was planted with lettuce seeds. The first seedlings are now emerging. They won’t amount to much until I am back home. The other tray’s seeds will be planted such that seedlings will not sprout until next year.

The tray with the lettuce seedlings also has a nutrient delivery system complete with a pump and drain mechanism installed such that a nutrient rich water solution can be pumped into the tray. Seeds are planted in an experimental rock wool replacement system which serves as a substitute for soil.

We have also installed a web camera donated by my company SpaceRef Interactive. If all systems work according to plan, we will get daily webcam images of the growth trays. These images will be provided when there is actually something to see (i.e. not during the long constant arctic night) as well as when there is enough wind/solar power to run all of the systems.

The images will be sent back by satellite and then posted on this – and other websites. If everything continues to proceed according to expectations, web visitors will be able to watch a crop of lettuce growing in a greenhouse on a remote arctic island complete remote control.

We’ll be watching from afar as the tray with seedlings grows throughout August and September. Eventually the propane that used to keep the temperature from getting too cold will run out and the plants will be on their own. The greenhouse does a marvelous job of retaining heat, but eventually the sun will be so low on the horizon, and will spend an increasing amount of time below the horizon, that there soon won’t be enough radiant energy to heat the greenhouse, and the plants will die. Our main research interest is the ability to remotely command and control the structure – while it grows plants. Once that capability has been demonstrated, the plants are expendable. Propane is expensive up here and it costs even more to fly the tanks in. As such we had to tailor the research program accordingly.

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SpaceRef staff editor.