Engineering graduate students Zahra Khan and Phillip Cunio, from MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, went to the Mars Society Desert Research Station Feb. 17. They began a two-week stay in a small, round simulator in Utah with a team of researchers who want to learn more about the logistical, mechanical, scientific, and psychological issues Mars explorers are likely to face.
Researchers in simulated spacesuits pass through an airlock before going out into the desert on all-terrain vehicles to sample soil; search for organisms; study survival in the dry, salty desert; and conduct biological field research. E-mail recipients must wait 20 minutes to read messages because that's the time researchers say it takes for radio waves to travel to and from Mars.
Khan examined the logistics of exploring the desert and doing geological and biological research. She has researched entry, descent, and landing systems, which could be more protective than past missions. For example, descents are likely to be very controlled and could involve airbags.
Cunio is researching common requirements and designs for self-sustaining life support and environmental control that can be used on Mars, the moon, and beyond. Cunio also wants to inspire young people's interest in space exploration through his Expedition Epsilon Outreach blog and through live question and answer sessions with students in U.S. and Canadian schools.
The researchers use RFID tags, antennas, and other equipment to keep track of items and coordinate the flow of supplies.
Both MIT students said they would like to be involved in real Mars missions someday, but Khan said that by the time NASA gets there, she could be too old.
"The odds may not be very good," she said. "I think it would be a good idea to send younger people."
Khan said she believes in one-way trips to Mars because it would save fuel and allow more people to visit the Red Planet.
"If you're going to go there, you might as well not waste the resources," she said.
Luckily for Khan, the trip to Utah wasn't one-way. She had to leave the mission early to interview for a job with a European space agency.