Scientists Simulate Mars Exploration in Hawaiian Lava Tubes

Researchers in Hawaii wear spacesuits in order to simulate off-world conditions.
Chris Young
A HI-SEAS team exploring Hawaii's lava tubes.HI-SEAS/Twitter

Astronauts are training for future moon and Mars missions by scraping microbes and collecting rock samples from Hawaii's lava tubes under timed conditions, a press statement from the European Geosciences Union (EGU) explains.

The HI-SEAS moonbase habitat in Hawaii is a specially designed facility where analog astronauts can train daily to prepare for the future of space exploration. They are timed in order to simulate the constraints of oxygen tanks in space.

With NASA having recently agreed a partnership with SpaceX to help take astronauts to the moon, the race to prepare for touchdown on other celestial bodies is heating up.

Leading the charge at the HI-SEAS moonbase habitat is Michaela Musilova of the International MoonBase Alliance (IMA) and director of HI-SEAS, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation.

Scientists Simulate Mars Exploration in Hawaiian Lava Tubes
The HI-SEAS moonbase habitat in Hawaii. Source: HI-SEAS

Musilova is set to present the latest research on the facility's analog astronauts this week at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly 2021.

At the event, Musilova will detail her team's findings on the challenges soon to be faced by off-world astronauts.

"Doing research in suits under EVA constraints makes everything much more difficult to do, and it all takes three times longer," Musilova said in the press release. "We need to train extensively on Earth to figure out the best methods and create the best EVA suits so that we'll be able to perform this kind of research on the moon and Mars one day," she continued.

Simulating the challenges of off-world research and exploration

In a bid to simulate off-world research as precisely as possible, researchers at the HI-SEAS moonbase habitat — located high on the volcano Mauna Loa, on Hawaii's Big Island — live and work for months at a time.

During that time, they only venture outdoors to perform experiments or walk through lava tubes — always suited in their Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) analog spacesuits, as they would be on the moon or Mars.

Crews at the HI-SEAS moonbase habitat are run much in the same way as they would be off-planet: they would be composed of a commander, operations officer, engineer, and science communication officer, as well as specialists for specific experiments.

The 110-square-meter (1,200-square-foot) habitat functions as the analog astronaut's living quarters, laboratory, gym, and everything else required for a space mission.

The HI-SEAS operators made sure to make conditions as similar to space as possible: "there is so much we still need to learn, including about how humans interact under these challenging conditions," Musilova said.

Scientists Simulate Mars Exploration in Hawaiian Lava Tubes
A HI-SEAS research team exploring the lava tubes of volcano Mauna Loa. Source: HI-SEAS/Twitter

Lava tubes on Earth are particularly useful locations for simulating off-world exploration, as similar tunnels on the moon and Mars will be targets of future exploration missions. Just last month, in fact, a team of engineers from the University of Arizona proposed future plans for building a "lunar ark" in the moon's lava tubes. 

As per a study published in PNAS last year, lava tubes on Mars may have also preserved biosignatures of life, meaning they will be targets for future missions searching for ancient life on the red planet.

Recent experiments have been largely devoted to researching the effects of isolation on humans. The "Deep Time" experiment in France, for example, saw a number of volunteers go into a cave for 40 days with no concept of time to see how it would affect their behavior and productivity.

The HI-SEAS facility is one of the most advanced research centers delving into the practicality of conducting experiments and collecting samples off-planet while wearing a spacesuit.

The bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 outlined the US space agency's efforts to get to Mars by 2030. With plans to go to the moon by 2024 also in place, the HI-SEAS research is providing timely research on the challenges of conducting research while wearing astronaut suits.

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