Hawaii is well known for its sun tanned bodies, sandy beaches, tropical margaritas with those cute little umbrellas, and NASA scientists. While the last one might sound odd, a research team with NASA is heading to Mauna Ulu, a site inside the famous Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, to develop and test methods and technology to search for life on Mars.
NASA’s Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains mission, or BASALT for short, begins this week to establish protocols and test some of the agency’s latest life detection gear on volcanic terrain, which resembles that of Mars.
According to John Hamilton, astronomer at the University of Hawaii,
Really, the whole reason of going to Mars is to see if there’s life there…
NASA’s greatest hurdles in dealing with the search for life on Mars are false and missed positives, in other words, errors that seriously jeopardise the data. An even greater risk is the contamination of the Martian surface by humans, which could be seriously damaging to any potential life found on the planet’s surface. In an attempt to reduce mistakes and risk, NASA will be testing its latest life hunting gadget, the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument. The device uses ultraviolet light to penetrate dust and debris on the planet’s surface. Looking at the fluorescence caused by the ultraviolet light, scientists can determine if organic matter is present and its approximate age. The device itself has lovingly been called, “the sniffer.”
Hawaii has been home to other NASA training missions in regards to Mars. On another volcanic site, Mauna Loa, NASA astronauts have enjoyed year long stays to test their psychological ability to deal with long bouts of isolation and boredom. According to Gloria Leon, a psychologist from the University of Minnesota, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, astronauts travelling to Mars will,
…miss the smells of nature, or the smell of food cooking. On a Mars voyage, Earth will be out of view. It will be the equivalent of twilight, looking out of the porthole. So there will be boredom – monotony, really – in terms of the environment.
The ridges and landscape of the volcano imitates the Martian landscape quite well, and the lack of water, trees, and vegetation gives the mission a charming bleak feeling, similar to the depressing and frightening reality actual astronauts would face as they traverse the surface of Mars. To ensure a sense of authenticity, all communication between the researchers on the volcano and mission control will be delayed by fifteen minutes, just as it would be on the red planet. Keeping things real is important, but waiting fifteen minutes for a pineapple daiquiri is ridiculous.