Astronauts Visit Antarctica to Prepare for Mars Voyage

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by

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Scientists visit Antarctica’s Dry Valleys to learn how people will live on another planet.

The astronauts left their friends and family far behind. They traveled many miles to a strange place. The atomosphere is harsh, and the air is thin. The frozen ground is barren and rocky. The land is dry because it hardly ever snows. Surviving in this alien land is very difficult.

You may be surprised to learn that these astronauts never left Earth at all. While there are extreme conditions like these on a distant planet like Mars, people can also experience these conditions by visiting Antarctica, one of Earth’s continents.

Astronauts visit Antarctica to learn how to stay healthy when they travel to Mars. Currently, NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are preparing to study volunteers who will live at Antarctica’s McMurdo or South Pole stations. The study begins in February 2017 and will explore how people survive in such harsh conditions.

Living with ICE

NASA and the NSF believe that travelers to Antarctica or Mars must be ready for ICE. ICE is a three-letter acronym invented by scientists that stands for the words isolation (I), confinement (C), and extreme environment (E).

In both Antarctica and on Mars, visitors are isolated because they are so far from everyone they know. There are no hospitals to visit if they get sick, and there are no farmers to grow fresh food. Since they will live in very small areas, they may feel confined. No matter how trapped they feel, people cannot take long walks or find places to be alone. The environments of both places are extreme. Neither has a climate that most people are used to.

Scientists nicknamed Antarctica the White Mars because its conditions are similar to those of Mars. While the average temperature on Mars is a frigid -81F (-63C), in Antarctica it is -71F (-57C ), only slightly warmer. Unlike Mars, however, most of Antarctica is covered with snow and ice. This is why scientists call it the White Mars.

Astronaut Christina Hammock Koch knows about ICE because she has visited Antarctica many times. Her advice to newcomers is to focus on the new things they will do there.  “The most helpful strategy I developed was to avoid thinking about all the things I was missing out on,” she explains, “and instead [I] focused on the unique things in the moment that I would never get to experience again.”

People who can live in Antarctica will probably have an easier time living on Mars. If they can remain happy and healthy there, they will be ready for a long voyage into space.

compared_terrain

Both Antarctica and Mars are cold, rocky, and dry. Left: Wright Valley, Antarctica. Right: The Burns Cliff on Mars as photographed by NASA’s Opportunity rover.

Mission to Mars

In 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush gave an address in which he said the next phase in space travel will be “human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.” Twelve years later, scientists and world leaders continue to discuss sending people to Mars.

In an article written for CNN in October 2016, U.S. president Barack Obama said he hoped that astronauts will visit Mars by the 2030s. This trip, he wrote, will require expensive technology. While the U.S. government and NASA have run all earlier American space missions, President Obama believes that sending people to Mars requires a partnership between governments and private businesses.

“We are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space,” the President wrote. “These missions will teach us how humans can live far from Earth—something we’ll need for the long journey to Mars.”

No person has ever visited Mars. The only visitors have been robots operated by scientists on Earth. One reason people have not made this trip is that Mars is so far from Earth. The planets are about 140 million miles apart, a distance first calculated in 1672 by Italian scientist Giovanni Cassini. Even on a fast spaceship, the trip from Earth to Mars takes months. The latest Mars mission, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) craft, left Earth on November 18, 2013, and didn’t arrive on Mars until Sept. 21, 2014. That’s more than 300 days—over 10 months!

Visiting Antarctica

Antarctica is about the size of the U.S. and Mexico put together. It is larger than Europe and almost twice the size of Australia.

Although covered with frozen water, Antarctica is Earth’s largest desert. Like all deserts, it receives little precipitation, getting only eight inches of snow each year. This snow never melts because the air is so frigid, so it builds up year after year until it piles into sheets of ice. The Antarctic ice sheet is over a mile thick and contains 90 percent of Earth’s frozen water.

Some parts of Antarctica are ice-free. These areas are close to an inlet called McMurdo Sound, so they are named the McMurdo Dry Valleys. These barren, rocky places resemble Mars’s surface. Like Mars, the Dry Valleys have no frozen water. Tall mountains keep ice from flowing in.

An Adélie penguin perches on a rock on Coronation Island, Antarctica. While common at the South Pole, penguins do not live at the North Pole, or anywhere else north of Earth's equator.

While Adélie penguins are common at the South Pole, no penguins live at the North Pole or anywhere else north of Earth’s Equator.

Life on a Frozen Continent

Antarctica hosts a variety of life adapted to extreme conditions. On the rocky coasts, Antarctic pearlwort plants bloom with small yellow flowers. The coasts are also home to thousands of noisy of Adélie penguins, whose colonies can include as many as half a million birds. Off the coasts in the chilly Southern Ocean, enormous blue whales gobble up billions of krill, or tiny sea creatures that look like shrimp.

No human beings are native to Antarctica. While it has a population of about 1,000 to 5,000 people, all are researchers or workers visiting from different countries.

Antarctica itself is not a country, but something called a condominium. In a condominium, several countries agree to share an area equally. To date, over 50 countries have signed an agreement called the Antarctic Treaty. Countries who sign it promise to set aside Antarctica for scientific study, and agree not to conduct any military activities there.

A map of the continent of Antarctica.

A map of the continent of Antarctica.

Additional Resources

Read more about Antarctica at the United States Antarctic Program and the British Antarctic Survey.

Watch live feeds from webcams at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

Read about the challenges of sending astronauts to Mars at NASA.

Take a 3-D flight over the Martian landscape at the European Space Agency.

Maps101 Resource for Subscribers: GNN Article “Antarctica’s Major Ice Shelves”

Images and Sources

NASA Scientists Image: NASA
NASA Scientists Image License: Public Domain

Wright Valley, Antarctica, Image: David Saul
Wright Valley, Antarctica, Image License: Public Domain

Mars Image: NASA
NASA Scientists Image License: Public Domain

Adélie Penguin Image: Liam Quinn
Adélie Penguin Image License: Creative Commons 2.0

Map of Antarctica Image: NASA
Map of Antarctica Image License: Public Domain