On a mission to Mars...aboard a Utah-based desert simulator

By: Kw NowNews - Brian Caldwell U of W Faculty of Engineering
| Published 10/11/2021

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On a mission to Mars

'Waterloo Engineering grad gets closer to his childhood dream at the MARS desert simulator in Utah.'

A recent graduate of Waterloo Engineering is taking a big step towards his dream of becoming an astronaut and travelling to Mars.

Jin Sing Sia (BASc ’21, mechanical engineering) is now in the midst of a two-week stay at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, a facility that simulates the Red Planet to help researchers learn how humans could survive there.

Sia, who came to Canada from Malaysia to pursue his space ambitions, is the health and safety officer on a four-person crew conducting experiments and living in close quarters in a cylindrical structure about eight metres in diameter.

Jin Sing Sia (bottom left) with fellow crew members Dave Laude, Inga Popovaite and Lindsay Rutter.

“I think that by going to this simulated Mars mission, we’ll not only be contributing to research for Mars exploration, but it will also help me understand myself and how I respond to these kinds of situations,” he said.

“For example, how would I respond to being in such a small, confined environment? Could I work effectively in these kinds of conditions, under pressure? So this is also a journey of personal exploration for me.”

Owned by the Mars Society, the facility is designed for research into technology, operations and science required for space exploration.

It regularly hosts field missions for scientists, engineers and university students in the Mars-like environment of the Utah desert.

Sia, who has dreamed of becoming an astronaut since he was 11, is conducting research on geographical information systems and participating in a sociological study.

'I'm going FOR REAL'

An active member of the Mars Society of Canada, he applied to the program as a second-year student at Waterloo and was thrilled to get selected despite delays and downsizing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I'm going FOR REAL this time!” he wrote in a recent social media post. “After one and a half years of delays, I'm FINALLY getting to go to simulated Mars!”

Sia, now a master’s student at Western University, is chronicling his adventure in a blog. Go to Diaries from Analog Mars to read his entries at the link below.

Mission Support

The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), owned and operated by the Mars Society, is a space analog facility in Utah that supports Earth-based research in pursuit of the technology, operations, and science required for human space exploration. We host an eight month field season for professional scientists and engineers as well as college students of all levels, in training for human operations specifically on Mars. The relative isolation of the facility allows for rigorous field studies as well as human factors research. Most crews carry out their mission under the constraints of a simulated Mars mission. Most missions are 2-3 weeks in duration, although we have supported longer missions as well. The advantage of MDRS over most facilities for simulated space missions is that the campus is surrounded by a landscape that is an actual geologic Mars analog, which offers opportunities for rigorous field studies as they would be conducted during an actual space mission.

Mars is within reach!

A world with a surface area the size of the combined continents of the Earth, the Red Planet contains all the elements needed to support life. As such it is the Rosetta Stone for revealing whether the phenomenon of life is something unique to the Earth, or prevalent in the universe. The exploration of Mars may also tell us whether life on Earth is the model for life elsewhere or whether we are just a small part of a much vaster and more varied tapestry. Moreover, as the nearest planet with all the required resources for technological civilization, Mars will be the decisive trial that will determine whether humanity can expand from its globe of origin to enjoy the open frontiers and unlimited prospects available to multi-planet space-faring species. Offering profound enlightenment to our science, inspiration and purpose to our youth, and a potentially unbounded future for our posterity, the challenge of Mars is one that we must embrace.

Indeed, with so much at stake, Mars is a test for us. It asks us if we will continue to be a society of pioneers, people who dare great things to open untrodden paths for the future. It asks whether we will be people whose deeds are celebrated in newspapers or in museums, whether we will continue opening new possibilities for our descendants or become less than those who tackled the unknown to give us everything we have.

Mars is the great challenge of our time!

In order to help develop key knowledge needed to prepare for human Mars exploration, and to inspire the public by making sensuous the vision of human exploration of Mars, the Mars Society initiated the Mars Analog Research Station (MARS) project. A global program of Mars exploration operations research, the MARS project includes two Mars base-like habitats located in deserts in the Canadian Arctic and the American Southwest. In these Mars-like environments, we have launched a program of extensive long-duration field exploration operations conducted in the same style and under many of the same constraints as they would on the Red Planet. By doing so, we began the process of learning how to explore on Mars.

The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is a laboratory for learning how to live and work on another planet. It is a prototype of a habitat that will land humans on Mars and serve as their main base for months of exploration in the harsh Martian environment. Such a habitat represents a key element in current human Mars mission planning. MDRS serves as a field base to teams of six to seven crew members: geologists, astrobiologists, engineers, mechanics, physicians, human factors researchers, artists, and others, who live for weeks to months at a time in relative isolation in a Mars analog environment. Mars analogs are defined as locations on Earth where some environmental conditions, geologic features, biological attributes or combinations thereof may approximate in some specific way those thought to be encountered on Mars, either at present or earlier in that planet’s history. Studying such sites leads to new insights into the nature and evolution of Mars, the Earth, and life.

(Editor's Note: But here's something to think about when you're actually on MARS and you can't just hop on the ATV and drive back into town for a burger. If something goes wrong, it'll take nine months to get here ... if it's even possible to respond that fast. If that gets inside your head it could really get to you after awhile.)

Why Mars? Dr. Robert Zubrin of The Mars Society tells why