Mars mission to be rehearsed in Arctic crater

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IT IS remote, desolate, inhospitable and very cold - just the place to build a prototype space base for the first inhabitants of Mars, scientists have decided. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) has chosen a barren island in the Canadian Arctic as the closest earthly parallel to a Martian landscape.

As part of its ambition to send humans to the red planet, Nasa is expected to announce details of a plan to construct a Martian base on the icy rocks of Devon Island in preparation for a manned trip to Mars in the 21st century.

Nasa is in talks with the Mars Society, a private consortium of scientists, engineers and space enthusiasts, to raise the $1m needed to build the space base at the site of a meteorite crater on the island, which geologists believe closely resembles the terrain of Mars.

John McKnight, executive director of the Mars Society, said there was no doubt that the project would go ahead. "We are in negotiations for the use of the Arctic base with two Nasa centres and they are extremely enthusiastic," he said. "This is definitely going to happen."

Nasa has already carried out two expeditions to the Haughton Impact Crater on Devon Island to test the sort of technology needed for a manned mission to Mars.

"It's revealing itself as very interesting. There are a variety of geological features that resemble Mars," said Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist at Nasa's Ames Research Centre in California. "The cold, relatively dry, windy and unvegetated environment at the Haughton site is milder and wetter than present-day Mars, but it may give us an idea of what early Mars was like and how some of its surface features were formed."

Building a space base on Devon Island would provide invaluable experience for people working in a remote and inhospitable environment for long periods while coping with the problem of delays in communication with the outside world, he added.

Robert Zubrin, a 46-year-old rocket engineer and the man behind the Mars Society's plan, has already earned a reputation as the person who has helped to revolutionised Nasa's ambitions to colonise Mars.

In 1990, Nasa estimated it would take $450bn and 30 years to send humans on the 80-million-mile return trip. Mr Zubrin calculated that it could be done for a tenth of the price, and in less than half the time, if astronauts could mine the Martian landscape for their return fuel.

He likened his concept of space travel to the philosophy of Roald Amundsen, the great Norwegian explorer who discovered the North-west Passage at the turn of the century. "Adopting the methods of the natives, they fed themselves and their dog teams on local game and travelled light," Mr Zubrin said.

He formulated his radical ideas in a 1997 book, The Case for Mars, which suggested that instead of expensive orbiting space stations and lunar bases, Nasa should fly directly to Mars.

"The plan employs no immense interplanetary spaceships and thus requires neither orbiting space bases nor storage facilities," he wrote. "Instead, a crew and their habitat are sent directly to Mars by the upper stage of the same booster rocket that lifts them to Earth orbit."

A small nuclear reactor sent separately to Mars could generate enough electricity to convert six tons of liquid hydrogen also sent from Earth and carbon dioxide extracted from the Martian atmosphere into 108 tons of methane and oxygen - sufficient for the return trip to Earth. Inspired by Mr Zubrin's vision, Nasa has now drawn up its own proposal, called the Mars Human Reference Mission. "Sending people to Mars is definitely real. Within Nasa it has long been a burning ambition," said Dr Lee.

The first concrete step in that direction will be the construction of the prototype Martian base in the meteorite crater on Devon Island.