In the search for Martian life, NASA turns its gaze to an unexpected swath of rocky landscape in Mauna Ulu, Hawaii. There, at Volcanoes National Park, researchers hope to test new equipment and protocols designed for collecting and protecting biological samples. This is the experiment of NASA’s Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains (BASALT), and the data they hope to collect will fuel the future crewed missions to Mars.
The project will be administered through the University of Hawaii, and aims to put geologists and biologists at Mauna Ulu for two weeks, having them search for new ways to prevent the contamination of rocks that might host living bacteria. This contamination is a major concern in NASA’s search for extraterrestrial life because it can lead to false positives and false negatives during the analyzing process. The new technology being implemented is called the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument, and it uses a light beam to detect traces of life, while maintaining minimal contamination of the specimen. During the experiment, communication with mission control will be delayed by up to twenty minutes, just as it would be on Mars. NASA has always relied on analog missions, and Hawaii’s volcanic ridges make excellent imitation Martian landscapes. The volcanic ridge’s high elevation stunts plant growth, plus volcanic rock is mostly basalt, which is the same mineral that makes up a considerable amount of the Martian surface.
On Mauna Loa, another Hawaiian volcano, astronauts have endured isolation missions as part of NASA’s HI-SEAS project, designed to test astronauts’ psychological limits. They miss the feeling of wind on their faces, they miss the smells of nature, and they miss the smell of food cooking. On a Mars voyage, Earth will be out of view. It will be the equivalent of twilight, so there will be boredom in terms of the environment, something NASA is trying to mirror in Hawaii.
On NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations 21, or NEEMO, researchers conduct geological studies in simulated antigravity. These tests require astronauts to dive to space-like conditions deep in the ocean . Others consider factors like sleep deprivation, as NASA seeks to make more informed decisions about crew selection and maintenance. And while analog missions can’t simulate every aspect of prolonged spaceflight, they do yield valuable insights.
Though different from Mars in a million different ways, Hawaii has much to offer in terms of helping astronauts and scientists alike to determine the best tools and conditions to implement in a Martian mission. These experiments are challenging and often take months or even years to finish, and often lead to more experiments with the data they provide, but they are vastly worth the effort. With what they glean from these experiments, NASA hopes to improve its technology for future crewed missions to Mars pushing us ever closer to finally seeing the first man on Mars.