Mock Mars Mission: How Science on Earth Can Help Build Martian Colony

MDRS Crew 133 Commander Paula Crock
MDRS Crew 133 commander Paula Crock, at right, spent several months at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Here, her crew launches a zero-pressure balloon to study ozone in the area. (Image credit: Chad Carpenter)

If a solar flare is on its way to the Mars Desert Research Station in January, Joseph Jessup wants to make sure Crew 133 is prepared to react if necessary. That's why he's driving from Arizona to the Mars Society facility in Utah with a radio telescope in the back of his car.

His portable telescope can not only detect solar particles at a range of 20 megahertz, but at night (after the sun has set) could be turned to Jupiter to spot electromagnetic radiation emanating from the immense planet.

Utah, of course, is safely underneath Earth's atmosphere, but the research would have applications for a future Mars colony. Mars has no appreciable magnetic field. This makes it easier for harmful solar particles to bleed through to the surface, putting colonists at a higher risk of cancer and other illnesses from radiation. [Gallery: Mock Mars Mission in the Arctic]

"It would have some applications for some kind of an early warning system on Mars," Jessup told

Antarctic experience in Utah

Jessup is part of a University of North Dakota-led crew that will be on site at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) between Jan. 4 and Jan. 19. The simulation will run as close to Mars exploration as possible, with crew members using facilities that would be expected during a space mission and not being allowed to go outside without spacesuits. (The author of this article is also a member of the team participating in the mission.)

With training in paleoanthropology, planetary geology and mapping, Jessup shifted his attention to design and construction of a hybrid planetary spacesuit for his UND thesis project. Jessup additionally plans to map geological layers at the MDRS site from satellite imaging and on-site sampling, reconstruct the erosion pattern, and try to determine what it looked like in the past.

Leading the crew will be Paula Crock, the person with the most experience in space mission simulations. She was at MDRS twice last year and even spent a winter in Antarctica leading a team that sampled ozone in the area with zero-pressure balloons. "I loved it," she said of her McMurdo Station stay. "I thought it was fantastic looking at the stars during a lunch break, and there's no light pollution when you get out of town."

Working in the cold and the dark also taught Crock much about commanding a research crew. She had to make sure that six people were able to work through the launch process — each balloon cost $600 and like a dry cleaner bag, they were easy to puncture — in extreme weather conditions.

"It was a six-man team, and in addition to this complicated procedure for launching, we’re in Antarctica," Crock said. "In the winter it was minus 35 [degrees Fahrenheit]. There were significant safety issues, too."

One Crew 133 MDRS experiment will use a computer program to monitor anesthesia injections on simulated astronauts. (Image credit: Human Patient Simulator, CAE Healthcare)

Of spacewalks and bacteria

While running the crew, Boston-based Crock plans to test a device that monitors the temperature inside of a spacesuit helmet during excursions. She tested a prototype last year and made some improvements since then, she said. After EVAs, she will distribute questionnaires to participants concerning exertion levels.

Matthieu Komorowski, a newly certified medical doctor from Lille 2 University in France, plans to test out software to simulate anesthesia on astronauts.

"I pretend to inject the astronauts with some anesthetics, and I assess mostly their cardiovascular responses to the drugs," Komorowski told He said the response to drugs can change on the less potent gravity of Mars.

UND student Gordon Gartrelle, a retired IBM sales executive, plans to examine the site for ancient hydrothermal activity. Since evidence of the earliest life on Earth came from these sorts of sites, he told, Mars microbes could potentially be in the same areas.

Also on the crew will be Pedro Diaz-Rubin, who will do astronomy experiments.

Elizabeth Howell will do a two-week simulation at the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station from Jan. 4 to 19. Have a burning question about the mission or a picture you really would like to see from the site? E-mail for the chance to get your question answered in a future story.

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+. Original article on

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: