On Monday (August 1), a group of eight researchers and their associates headed north into the High Arctic to spend a month at the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) base on Devon Island, about 15 degrees south of the North Pole. The group includes base founder and expedition leader Dr. Pascal Lee, a group of researchers from MIT’s Haystack Observatory, other researchers and support staff, and myself, the sole representative of the media.
This will be the HMP team’s return to base since 2019 due to COVID-19 restrictions, and its condition is uncertain – weather and polar bears (opens in a new tab) can wreak havoc on structures and support equipment. The on-site generators and ATVs have endured several freeze/thaw cycles, and increasingly hungry polar bears may have made their way into some of the lightly constructed habitats – they’ve tried before. Although satellite images show no significant damage, success is far from certain.
Before we can begin the series of four to six flights over two days that are necessary to reach the remote outpost, we must pack the necessary equipment and prepare for the extreme weather conditions. While the nearest weather station reports temperatures ranging from 34 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit (1 to 7 degrees Celsius), with humidity hovering around 90%, the weather on Devon Island – which is the largest uninhabited island of the world – can be quite different, with high winds frequently causing temperatures to plummet due to wind chill.
Related: NASA’s Haughton-Mars Project: Summer on a ‘planet’ near us
To travel to HMP, we are limited to 50 pounds (22.6 kilograms) of checked baggage for personal effects and one carry-on. In normal travel this is not a challenge as anything forgotten or overlooked can be picked up at a nearby Walmart or family store. But on Devon we’ll be dealing with whatever we’re carrying, so cold weather clothing is essential, and anything mechanical or electronic probably can’t be replaced. The HMP base has spares, but we’re told not to rely on them.
In my case, that means camera gear and laptops are essential assets, and backups of every wear-and-tear or temperature-sensitive item are essential. Batteries hate the cold, lenses hate windblown coarse grain, and electronics like to fail at critical times. Duplicating technology quickly becomes cumbersome, but since the failure of a critical element would put me in vacation mode for a month, backups are essential. I’ve been preparing for weeks, and with three days to go, I’m preparing, unpacking, disposing of and repacking for the third time.
The base is operated by the Mars Institute and was founded and built in the late 1990s by Lee, a planetary geologist and co-founder of the institute. Lee is passionate about the project, and as he jokes now, “I lived in California for 25 years, but had never spent a summer here until COVID.” When asked if he can’t wait to get back to his Martian analog base, he smiles broadly. “I wouldn’t say it’s pleasant, but yes, it’s a wonderful, otherworldly place with a lot to offer for understanding future Mars exploration.”
The base, abbreviated HMP (you can find it on Google Maps under “Haughton-Mars Project Base Camp”) is located on the rim of the Haughton Impact Crater, a 12.5 mile (20 kilometer) feature formed around 23 million years old by an asteroid or comet impact, and resides at approximately 75 degrees latitude. It is the largest impact structure in the northern regions and, along with many other Mars-like features on the island, makes Haughton possibly the best Red Planet analogue on Earth.
The HMP base consists of a group of eight structures – a few hard buildings and a number of vinyl-covered frames that make up the rest of the camp. The Haughton-Mars project is supported by NASA, the SETI Institute, the Mars Institute, and various other sources, and NASA provides many of the experiments to be conducted there each year, increasing the research conducted there.
An advance team consisting of Lee, polar veteran and base manager HMP John Schutt, myself and a handful of others will complete the final leg of the trip to do an aerial survey of the base and, weather and ground conditions permitting , land at HMP’s airstrip. Assuming all is in acceptable order, the remaining participants will follow on a second Twin Otter flight, along with approximately 25 crates of radio astronomy equipment.
My next dispatch will detail our arrivals in Canada, dealing with extended COVID safety protocols, and our departure to Devon Island. See you later.
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