Devon Island: The Last Stop Before Mars

By Carl Engelking | September 29, 2016 12:49 pm
The Haughton

The Haughton-Mars Project Research Station. (Credit: NASA)

Talk of sending humans to Mars hit a fever pitch this week following SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s big announcement Tuesday.

He outlined an ambitious plan to begin sending cargo missions to Mars by 2018, with the first manned missions leaving by 2022 or 2023. Along the way, he hopes to improve the cost of trips by “5 million percent”, and establish a colony of 1 million souls there within 40 to 100 years. Let’s just say people had questions — The Verge’s Loren Grush outlined a few of them.

How will humans survive? What about radiation? How will they get around? What happens to the waste colonists flush down the toilet? We didn’t get a clear answer form Musk, but these are the kinds of questions that NASA scientists have been working to answer for two decades in one of the most remote, empty places on earth: Devon Island.


The HMP Okarian team making progress on its journey. (Credit: Green Flash Pictures)

Devon Island is the largest uninhabited island on the planet, and it’s about as Mars-like as it gets. It’s home to the 14 mile-wide Haughton Crater, which is cold, dry, rocky and extremely isolated. Since 1997, Pascal Lee, planetary scientist at the Mars Institute and the SETI Institute, and director of the Haughton-Mars Project at NASA Ames Research Center, has led missions every summer from a small research station there to prepare people and design technologies for a trip to the Red Planet.

On the island, researchers have tested robots, spacesuits, drills and other tools that would aid future Mars explorers. It’s also a proving ground for would-be Mars colonists. Devon Island is isolated, the environment is brutal and the area is poorly mapped, which makes it the perfect place to get a taste of what might go wrong out there.

From 2009 to 2011, six scientists, led by Lee, took a Martian-like road trip aboard a modified Humvee, called the HMP Okarian, which served as a simulated moon or Mars pressurized rover. The goal was to cross the Northwest Passage in a road vehicle and reach the Haughton research station — easier said than done.

The six-member crew encountered extreme conditions along their 2,000-mile journey. (Credit: Green Flash Pictures)

The six-member crew encountered extreme conditions along their 2,000-mile journey. (Credit: Green Flash Pictures)

If you want a glimpse of the struggles Musk’s future space colonists might confront, be sure to check out “Passage to Mars,” a new documentary hitting theaters Friday that follows the HMP Okarian crew on their journey across the Arctic. Zachary Quinto narrates the film, drawing from Lee’s actual expedition logs from the trip. Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin also guest stars in the film. It’s a humbling examination of what’s in store for future explorers.

“Astronauts bound for Mars will train on Devon Island, and we hope this film will inspire and ready all explorers,” says Lee.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: mars, space exploration
  • Jeremy

    I don’t know Elon. This sounds a lot like Richard Branson’s “space plane” and his ridiculously ambitious timetable to take fourteen tourists to space at a time and dock at the Virgin space hotel for a two-week stay. His plan was revealed in 1997. Since then he seems to think that if he never mentions the space hotel again it’s like he never promised it, the goal of his project is now to blast tourists into sub-orbital “space” for an incredibly ephemeral five minute glide back down to Earth and his timetable, that was supposed to initiate space tourism more than a decade ago, has been pushed back so many times there no longer even is one. I’ll believe in a manned mission to Mars when it happens. However, I have a funny feeling I won’t live to see the day, and I’m 32.

  • Uncle Al

    If there is any native life on Mars, arrival of the terrestrial biome will cause unknown hazards and extinction (that is forever). All spaceflight must be permanently ended by looping a ton or three of dry beach sand around the moon into geosynchronous counter-orbit, popping the load, then chain reaction (initial 3.8 mi/sec relative).

    Civilization is an utter failure. Return the world to the poor and diverse – including the infrastructure.

    • TemplarRising

      I think it’s time to extinguish the crack pipe and order your thoughts a bit more coherently

      • Uncle Al

        A space-going Islamic nation could irreparably end Western civilization – and permanently disable its military (GPS) – with one launch. North Korea, too, the United Nations low rent district. Fissile materials are losers, for they can be deployed but never used.

  • John C

    It sounds like an exciting idea but if you think about the details it doesn’t make sense really.

    Pretty much any scientific purpose for sending humans to Mars could be handled by robots. The few human activities that robots could not do would have to be weighed against the enormous cost of setting up even a small settlement.

    The effects of 38% Earth gravity will lead to osteoporosis and muscle wasting, and probably other serious problems, in a way similar to being bed-ridden for a long period.

    Since Mars has no molten revolving metallic core to form a magnetic shield against solar wind the atmosphere is continuously stripped off. Add to that the problem of low gravity not being able to hold down a thick atmosphere. Terra-farming an atmosphere would be unworkable.

    Does anyone besides Musk really think that Earth will become so uninhabitable in the next several hundred years that we need Mars as a back up plan?

    Extensive exploration of space is a very worthwhile activity. But for the foreseeable future why do we really need to send humans beyond near Earth orbit or maybe the Moon?

  • Erik Bosma

    Well it’s about time they used a half-way similar to Mars environment to train would-be Martians. That year long visit to Hawaii was a joke. Spend a year up here and then tell us about going to Mars which is WORSE… much worse.

  • Thetentman Thetentman

    Journalism 101 – You forgot to mention where on the planet Devon Island is.

    • Duaine Geturhandoutmydamnpocke


  • TXPatriot

    Why bother going to Mars when Google Earth can already take you there?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar