As space agencies begin planning for the future missions that will take human explorers to Mars, volunteer researchers are testing out what working in deep-space conditions will be like by living in a tiny dome on a remote volcano in Hawaii. The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, is in its fourth iteration.
Astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux recently shared details of his experience as one of six researchers in HI-SEAS IV for a year on his blog, and his tale makes the idea of being a pioneering outer space scientist sound way harder than it looks in the movies. Here are five things we learned about what working on Mars might be like in the future.
1. YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO REPLACE BROKEN EQUIPMENT.
The HI-SEAS habitat in Hawaii. Image Credit: Cyprien Verseux
One day, Verseux broke a flask in his lab. “A cheap flask, easily replaceable, that I would have quickly forgotten about under normal conditions,” he writes. “As I have not seen a shop in the past eight months, and the dome has no postal address, I will have to go without it. Without this flask, precious after all, that was part of the limited supplies we have here. Researchers on Mars will have to face constraints which are unusual to a typical western laboratory.”
2. ELECTRICITY WILL BE HARD TO COME BY.
Resources are predictably scarce in space, and it’s not just water that’s limited. Most of the dome’s energy supply comes from solar panels, as it might on Mars, but they don’t always perform as expected. “In practice, our power generation is quite unpredictable: we don’t face dust storms as we would have on Mars, but we do get clouds,” Verseux writes. “I often have to postpone experiments because we lack the power for running the centrifuge or the autoclave.”
3. IT WILL BE HARD TO FOCUS.
“How do you feel after spending an entire weekend at home, without going outside even once?” Verseux asks. “Imagine spending months there. Because of the lack of open air and the monotony, we sometimes have to fight a tendency to slow down.”
4. YOU WILL HAVE TO IMPROVISE.
If The Martian taught us anything, it’s that improvisational skills are key in space. But even conducting basic scientific work far from Earth-bound labs requires clever workarounds. Just because you carefully plan and budget for your project doesn’t mean that everything goes as planned, Verseux cautions. “You used more tubes than expected because you had forgotten a control, you spilled a bottle of reagent, a colleague broke your glassware when dancing to the sound of his MP3 player,” he lists among the potential pratfalls of the lab. Under normal circumstances, these issues could be easily remedied, but far from any postal service, they become bigger barriers. If it wasn’t on the initial list of necessities, you won’t be getting it delivered to Mars.
5. YOU WON’T BE FACEBOOKING.
“Our internet access is limited to a few websites necessary to our work,” he describes. The researchers have to email the Mission Support Crew to access most documents and information that could easily be Googled at home. “Getting information that we could find in less than 15 minutes ‘on Earth’ can take days here, especially given that our emails have a 20-minute delay in both directions to simulate the 4-to-24-minute delay necessary for Earth–Mars communications.”