Tuesday, December 14, 2010

One Man On The Surface Of Mars

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Scholastic reporter Tyrus Cukavac with a scientist in astronaut suitScholastic reporter Tyrus Cukavac near the North Pole with a scientist in an astronaut suit. (Tyrus Cukavac)

Our Man on "Mars"

A Scholastic reporter learns about life on Mars—by way of the North Pole

By Tyrus Cukavac | September 16 , 2010
<br />(Map by Jim McMahon)

(Map by Jim McMahon) 

It took 17 hours and 5 different airplanes, but I finally got to Mars—or the next best thing. I had arrived at NASA's Haughton Mars Project on Devon Island. At its northernmost tip, the island is less than 500 miles from the North Pole.
The cold, dusty land on Devon Island is similar to that of Mars. That's why scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have traveled to the faraway island every summer since 1996. Some 15 to 20 scientists at a time take advantage of the Arctic's similarities to Mars. They go there to conduct research and to test equipment that might one day be used to allow astronauts to explore the Red Planet.
During my visit to the Canadian island, I rode a Kawasaki ATV (all-terrain vehicle) to the rim of a crater to watch a scientist test a prototype space suit. I tasted lettuce grown in the camp's self-sustaining greenhouse. It was very bitter! I even watched a robot take its first steps.
I got to talk with some of the brightest minds in space research. I learned the true meaning of hard work while we camped in tents in one of the most extreme environments on our planet.
Summer near the North Pole means almost 24-hour sunlight and temperatures close to freezing. (In winter, the island is covered in nearly round-the-clock darkness, and temperatures drop as low as -58°F.)
Cell phone and Internet access is extremely limited. The only animals that live in this island's extreme weather year-round are musk oxen and small birds.
Why do scientists put themselves in such a harsh environment? Scientist Kelsey Young says that doing research in the Arctic "helps teams work together in a simulated mission environment. That is really hard to do in a lab."
The U.S. is said to be decades away from an actual Mars expedition. But hard-working scientists are helping to ensure that when we finally get to the Red Planet, we'll be ready.
This article was adapted from one in Junior Scholastic magazine.

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