Researchers will mix geology and biology this month inside Hawaii’s famous Volcanoes National Park to help NASA get ready for a planned manned mission to Mars, according to a report by the Miami Herald. NASA aims to send the first humans to the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s.
A team of researchers will hike around Mauna Ulu to practice collecting rock samples as they would on Mars. The purpose of the training is to develop protocols that would be used on the actual Mars mission to identify and protect rock samples that could host life.
Among other things, the astronauts who will participate in the Mars mission have to learn to deal with the time-delay in communications between Earth and Mars, the psychological impact of long-term isolation, and the rugged terrain of the Red Planet that makes surface exploration extremely difficult.
One specific concern is the contamination of rocks that might be home to living bacteria, said John Hamilton, an astronomy faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Really, the whole reason of going to Mars is to see if there’s life there. There’s a lot of great geology. But are we alone?
The project is called BASALT, or Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains.
Hamilton said that NASA chose Hawaii – as well as the Snake River plain in Idaho – as research sites because both locations host volcanic terrain similar to Mars. He also mentioned that no spacesuits will be used for the project, but there will be a mission control set up at Kilauea Military Camp.
The hunt for microbial life on Mars – whether it be extinct or extant – is one of the key objectives of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. The 2020 mission seeks to send a rover to Mars to look for signs of life, as will as conduct investigations into the usability and availability of Martian resources, including oxygen, to prepare for the 2030 manned missions.