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Mars: Scientists turn to Arctic to research red planet

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic
NASA photo

A team of scientists are back for their 16th summer in the High Arctic, using Devon Island's Haughton Crater, in Canada's eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut, as a stand-in for Mars.

"It's bleak and it's beautiful and it just takes you to Mars as soon as you go there," said Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist with the Mars Institute and director of NASA's Haughton-Mars Project.

The uninhabited island, located east of Resolute and south of Grise Fiord, is a rocky polar desert marked by an ancient rock impact -- a terrain similar to that of the red planet.

"Twenty-two million years ago an asteroid or comet — not sure yet — hit that location and created a gigantic hole in the ground," said Lee. "Rocks were melted and even vaporized at the time of the impact."

Using the Haughton Crater as an analog for Mars helps scientists understand the planet's geology and glaciology, as well as to field test exploration vehicles and other technologies.

"We are testing a robotic drill for example this year," said Lee. "The surface for Mars is very difficult for life as we know it to live on. But underneath the surface, where it's shielded from radiation, ultraviolet light and the cold, we might have a chance for finding signs of life, so we are learning how to drill here so we can do it on Mars."

Nasa's newest Mars rover Curiosity is expected to land in the planet's Gale Crater on Aug. 6.

"It's the size of golf cart -- it's a much bigger rover -- and it's a step in the direction of what we hope to send one day to Mars which are humans and habitats and bigger rovers," he said.

Though Lee says we're still years away from a manned mission to Mars, he believes research on Devon Island is paving the way.

"My sense is that when humans actually go to Mars one day, they will train on Devon first."

He said a large component of the project involves Nunavut students and young adults working and participating in the research.

"I hope that kids growing up in Nunavut here for example will one day get the sense they really contributed to sending humans to Mars and will get there themselves one day," Lee said.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media.