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I've seen a lot of documentaries, articles, papers, etc which show people living in the desert or other deserted places to simulate living on Mars. However, it seems to me that a better way to really test the feasibility, isolation, and environmental hostility would be to try to create some sort of permanent, self-sustaining colony on the continent of Antarctica.

Of course, there are already permanent facilities there, but as far as I know they are all dependent on the outside world for everything. I'm wondering if it would be a good test run for equipment, people, policies, food production, etc as a sort of alpha test for colonising Mars.

Similar problems exist in both environments, but aside from the fact people can breathe outside and radio signals are essentially instantaneous, is there anything else really different? If it's not a better test run than a desert in North America or Australia, why not? Are there any similar ideas to approaching colonising Mars with test runs like this?

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This isn't a direct answer, but I think colonising underwater would be a better practice for colonizing Mars. Some problems are reversed in direction (you're trying to keep water out rather than air in), but the challenges are similar: you can't breathe outside and have to take precautions going in and out, reduced sunlight of similar length, isolation both physical and communication-wise (assuming there isn't an undersea cable), and unusual hazards. –  Bobson Jul 22 at 17:30
@Bobson: plus, it would be worthwhile in its own right. –  Harry Johnston Jul 22 at 21:21
@HarryJohnston - Yes, that too. Inner space needs exploration too! –  Bobson Jul 22 at 21:25
I'd like to see would be lunar or Martian settlers test buried habs at La Rinconada, the highest city on earth. There a lot of people there because of the gold. But life is uncomfortable, the air is so thin people can barely survive. What better place on earth to practice burying pressurized Bigelow habs with airlocks? A number of such habs would be a great asset to the people of La Rinconada. –  HopDavid Jul 23 at 0:17
Seems to me the obvious place would be in orbit around the moon. –  Nigele2 Jul 23 at 17:24

4 Answers 4

up vote 18 down vote accepted

There are a number of problems with this idea. The top two I can see are:

  • The Antarctic is an incredibly difficult place to work and live. While that might sound like an excellent test for Mars colonisation, most groups really do not want their test subjects to die because we couldn't get to them in an emergency. Deserts are actually much more forgiving in this respect.
  • The Antarctic is protected under international treaty. The amount of impact man has already had there is considered by many to be too much - so to get agreement from all the relevant parties would be very difficult.

That said, there is extensive data from the various bases in the Antarctic on isolation and hostility, as well as scientific tests so this certainly feeds in to the planning for Mars.

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When I think of (non-political) challenges when settling the Antarctic, two things come to my mind:

  • Long winter nights
  • Snow

Any self-sustained facility will probably be solar powered1. The long winter nights make this much harder than it would be on Mars.

You probably want to go outside from time to time. Snow fall and blizzards create problems very different from the ones sand storms would cause on Mars.

You don't need to go far away to test self sustained facilities, you can just put it in your backyard and employ a no-cheating rule. The only exception is if you want to test for specific environmental conditions, but I think deserts are a better approximation of Mars than the Antarctic in that regard.

1) although I wouldn't be surprised if some people out there think about searching for oil on Mars

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Apparently, yes they do, although the goal seems to be more about looking for trace quantities of oil or natural gas as evidence of past life on Mars, than about actually searching for exploitable amounts of fossil fuels there. –  Ilmari Karonen Jul 22 at 13:49
Note that Antarctica, as a whole, is considered a desert. Heavy snowfall is only common in the coastal regions. The Dry Valleys are one of the driest places in the world. –  JohannesD Jul 23 at 11:29

I think such tests are pretty useless. However, the Mars Society successfully use them as public relations events to promote space travel.

Since gravity, temperature swings, dust, atmosphere, radiation, ground materials doesn't match at all between Mars or any place on Earth, the only potential thing to test is social psychology. But even there I see partly huge differences, partly stuff which has already been demonstrated many times.

You arrive at Mars after 6-9 months in a capsule. Submarines and space stations have already done that. We know that it isn't a problem.

Real Mars travelers would not be able to take off their helmet to breath air, as they can on the Antarctic. They can't go home if they get sick. If anything psychological is important, I think that those differences are among the most important. The very difference between a simulation and the real thing. Human psychology understands that difference and reacts differently. If at any single moment you get desperate and panic knowing there is no way out, you could go berserk and cause accidents.

In the general discussions of this I've seen, I think that there's far too much focus on people getting angry with each others. That's not the psychological problem. People realize that they don't have that luxury on a real mission. Mutinies on ships have been very rare inspite of year long journeys with unfair conditions between officers and other crew.

Actually, the Antarctic seems to be the worst place on Earth to simulate Mars environment. Because one of the very few things common between Mars and Earth is the length of day. Only on the poles is even that very different with months long days and nights. Unless you want to simulate a Mars polar landing, its axis tilt is the same as that of Earth.

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The 6-9 months travel time is a problem, because it occurs outside of the protective effect of Earth magnetosphere. We don't really know how to avoid serious health issues (cancers...) for that long exposures to Solar wind and cosmic rays. Unless you use heavy shielding, but heavy shielding is heavy, which is also a big problem. –  Thomas Pornin Jul 22 at 22:24
@Thomas Pornin, I do think that we know how to shield astronauts from radiation by using fuel, water, waste which they must carry with them anyway. And special light weight hydrogen rich plastics. It does need some extra mass added, mostly because of adapting the interior decorations for the purpose, but not much. Hydrogen is the lightest element and it is the most efficient radiation stopper. It is not heavy, that is a misunderstanding. –  LocalFluff Jul 23 at 17:48

Some parts of Antarctica apparently experience Mars-like temperatures occasionally; however, the environment there is quite different from Mars in many other respect, in particular the floor. An Antarctica base building must cope with being established on packed snow, which has its own engineering challenges that do not echo what would be experienced by Mars colonists. For instance, it is expected that dust will be a significant issue on Mars, and Antarctica is mostly dust-less.

Simulation of Mars colony has been done and is ongoing, but at the other pole, on Devon Island, which is part of the Canadian Arctic. The rocky ground makes it a closer match (not close, but closer nonetheless, and about as good as you can get on Earth). Also, as @Rory mentioned, human presence in Antarctica is regulated by international treaties which can make some operations a bit more complex. I may add that Devon Island can be reached for much less money, because it is quite closer to North American countries from which most of the equipment and people come, and also because it can be reached by boat (not year round, but often enough), whereas an inland Antarctica base requires air-lifting.

Among Martian conditions which are very hard to simulate anywhere on Earth, one may cite:

  • Low gravity (about 1/3rd of Earth).
  • Very low atmospheric pressure, requiring pressurized buildings.
  • That pesky oxidized dust that is prone to infiltrate everywhere.
  • Occasional dust storms which may last for weeks.
  • Occasional very low temperatures.
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-1 for factual errors - significant portions of antarctica are exposed soil. –  aramis Jul 23 at 23:12

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