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Photo by Sarah Jane Pell, Courtesy of Author

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Diary of a Martian

Join astrobiologist Julia DeMarines on a two-week trip to the Red Planet

Beep! My alarm goes off. I know it must be 8:00 a.m. even though it’s pitch-black in my windowless room. I sit up in bed and knock my head into the ceiling. I had to sleep on the top bunk (again!).

I am not a morning person, but today is an EVA day—short for extra vehicular activity—and I need to get ready to explore the surface of Mars. Well, not actually Mars . . . . No human has stepped foot there yet. I’m actually at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS). MDRS is a facility in Utah run by The Mars Society to help study the science, technology, and other factors needed to send humans to Mars.

My alarm goes off. I know that means it’s 8:00 a.m. But it's pitch-black in my windowless room. I sit up in bed and knock my head into the ceiling. I had to sleep on the top bunk (again!).

I am not a morning person. But today is an EVA day. That’s short for extra vehicular activity. I need to get ready to explore the surface of Mars! Well, OK, not actually Mars. No human has stepped foot on that planet yet. I'm actually at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS). MDRS is a facility in Utah run by the Mars Society. People like me go there to study the science and technology needed to send humans to Mars eventually.

Photo by Julia DeMarines, Courtesy of Author

From left to right: Julia DeMarines (author of the article), Crew Astronomer; Renee Garifi, Executive Office; Sarah Jane Pell, Artist in Residence; Tatsunari Tomiyama, Health & Safety Officer; Zac Trolley, Crew Engineer, Greenhab Officer; Ryan L. Kobrick, Commander

I’m a member of the six-person international Crew 188. We will spend the next two weeks living like Martians. Our living space is tiny, as if it were shipped to Mars from Earth. We cannot go outside unless we are in our EVA suits, aka astronaut suits. Although our experience at the MDRS is just a simulation, it mimics what it would be like to really live and work on Mars.

Why am I on this trip? I’m an astrobiologist. I study how we might find life beyond Earth. That includes everything from studying the microscopic bacteria that live deep in the ocean to using radio telescopes to hunt for signals from alien civilizations—if there are any out there. So far we haven’t found any E.T. life yet, but I still get excited every day I go to work!

I'm a member of Crew 188. There are six of us from all over the world. We will spend the next two weeks living like Martians. Our living space is tiny, like anything shipped to Mars from Earth would have to be. We cannot go outside unless we are in our EVA suits. They look like the suits astronauts wear. This helps us mimic what it would be like to really live and work on Mars.

Why am I on this trip? I'm an astrobiologist. I study how we might find life beyond Earth. Sometimes that means analyzing the microscopic bacteria that live deep in the ocean. Other times I use radio telescopes to hunt for signals from alien civilizations, if there are any out there. We haven't found any alien life yet. But I still get excited every day I go to work! 

LIFE ON MARS

During the expedition, we lived and worked in a two-story, cylindrical habitat, called “the Hab.” The Hab is only 26 feet in diameter—about as wide as a classroom! On the lower level is the equipment storage area, bathroom, and air lock. The kitchen and the sleeping quarters are on the second floor. My room was tiny! It was about the size of a very thin, deep closet. Stretching out from the sides of the Hab are tunnels that link to the greenhouse (GreenHab), the science lab, and the telescope dome.

Living and working on Mars is a tough job. It is very physically demanding, and you are busy ALL the time. Each member of the team had many jobs. I was the crew astronomer but was also assigned as a GreenHab operator, growing food for the crew.

My main job was to make observations through our telescopes. I had planned to observe nearby asteroids because there’s a better view of the asteroid belt on Mars than on Earth. But not everything went as planned: The main telescope was broken. Luckily, I was still able to make observations with our smaller helio-telescope, which has special filters for safely observing the sun. I enjoyed having an extra role as the GreenHab operator because we had a lot of cloudy days and I was only able to use the helio-telescope a few times.

We lived and worked in a round, two-story habitat during the expedition. We called it "the Hab." The Hab is 26 feet in diameter. That’s only about as wide as a classroom! The equipment storage area, bathroom, and air lock are on the lower level. The kitchen and the sleeping quarters are on the second floor. My room was tiny! It was about the size of a very thin, deep closet. Tunnels stretch out from the sides of the Hab. They link to a greenhouse called the GreenHab, a science lab, and a telescope dome.

Living and working on Mars is a tough job. It is very physically challenging, and you are busy ALL the time. Each member of the team had many jobs. I worked as the crew astronomer. I also helped grow food for the crew in the GreenHab. 

My main job was to make observations through our telescopes. I had planned to observe nearby asteroids. On Mars, you get a better view of the asteroid belt than on Earth! But not everything went as planned. The main telescope was broken. Luckily, I was still able to make observations with our smaller telescope. It has special filters to let you safely observe the sun. I enjoyed having the extra role as the GreenHab operator. We had a lot of cloudy days when I couldn’t use the telescope, so it gave me something to do.

Photo by Julia DeMarines, Courtesy of Author

“We cannot go outside unless we are in our EVA suits, aka astronaut suits.”

CARING FOR CROPS

When working in the GreenHab, I made sure the crops in our massive greenhouse were healthy and growing. When people really go to Mars, they will have to produce a lot of their own food. That’s because it would be too challenging—and expensive—to bring enough food for the entire mission. It can take up to 300 days to even reach Mars!

Every day, I watered the plants and checked the temperature and humidity of the GreenHab. On other days I trimmed plants, added fertilizer to their soil, and moved them so they wouldn’t get overcrowded. During the mission, we harvested tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs. These fresh veggies were a nice supplement to the freeze-dried food we had packed. I also wrote daily reports on the GreenHab’s status for Mission Control on Earth. This was probably one of the most important parts of the job. If you think writing essays in class would never come in handy, think again!

I also performed a science experiment. NASA engineers had created a hand-held chlorophyll detector. Although it’s highly unlikely there are green plants on Mars, they wanted me to test how the detector worked when the operator is wearing an astronaut suit. The result: It worked! But it was tricky to use the detector while wearing gloves.

The GreenHab is a massive greenhouse. I made sure the crops in there were healthy and growing. When people really go to Mars, they will have to grow a lot of their own food. That's because it would be too challenging and expensive to bring enough food for the entire mission. It can take up to 300 days just to reach Mars!

I watered the plants in the GreenHab every day. I also checked the temperature and humidity of the greenhouse. Sometimes I trimmed plants, fertilized them, or moved them so they wouldn't get too crowded. During the mission, we harvested tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs. The fresh veggies were a nice addition to the freeze-dried food we had packed.

I wrote daily reports on the GreenHab's status. These were for Mission Control back on Earth. This was probably one of the most important parts of the job. If you think writing essays in class will never come in handy, think again!

I also performed a science experiment. NASA engineers had created a handheld device to detect chlorophyll, a substance in green plants. It's highly unlikely that there are green plants on Mars. But NASA wanted me to test if the detector worked when the operator is wearing an astronaut suit. The result: It worked! But using the detector while wearing gloves was tricky.

COMING HOME

After living in Mars simulation for two weeks, I learned what it was like to live and work on another world. It was hard. You are very isolated. You can’t call your family or see any of your friends. Your crewmates become your family, and you start to really think about what it means to be an Earthling.

When you are out on an EVA in your suit, you can’t feel the environment. I missed the breeze in my hair. The gloves made it difficult to feel the rocks we gathered. Not being able to feel the environment was probably the weirdest, most un-Earthly moment for me.

I lived in the Mars simulation for two weeks. During that time, I learned what it was like to live and work on another world. It was hard and sometimes lonely. You can't call your family or see any of your friends. Your crewmates become your family. You start to really think about what it means to be an Earthling.

When you are out on an EVA in your suit, you can't feel anything around you. I missed feeling the breeze in my hair. The gloves made it hard to feel the rocks we collected. Not being able to feel the environment was the weirdest thing for me.

Photo by Sarah Jane Pell, Courtesy of Author

DeMarines tests a handheld chlorophyll—green plant pigment—detector while wearing her spacesuit.

There were also some scary moments that made me glad it was a simulation. Once I tried to jump while in my EVA suit, and my helmet unlatched! Another time, all our radios malfunctioned while on an EVA and we couldn’t communicate with each other or the Hab. If this had happened on Mars, we would have been in a lot of trouble—or not survived at all.

There was never a dull moment, but those two weeks taught me to persevere through tough times. The experience also gave me a new perspective on what it would really take to live on another world. For now, I am glad to be living on Earth.

Over and out.

There were also some scary moments. Once I tried to jump while I was wearing my EVA suit, and my helmet unlatched! This could have been deadly on Mars. It made me glad it was a simulation. Another time, all our radios malfunctioned while we were on an EVA. We couldn't communicate with each other or the Hab. If this had happened on Mars, we would have been in a lot of trouble. We might not have survived.

There was never a dull moment during the simulation. Those two weeks taught me to keep going during tough times. The experience also gave me a new perspective on what it would really take to live on another world. For now, I am glad to be living on Earth.

Use this information to solve rate problems about living on Mars. Round answers to the nearest tenth. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Use this information to solve rate problems about living on Mars. Round answers to the nearest tenth. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

When working in the GreenHab, it takes me 120 minutes to repot 20 tomato plants. How many plants can I repot in 30 minutes?

When working in the GreenHab, it takes me 120 minutes to repot 20 tomato plants. How many plants can I repot in 30 minutes?

My crewmate Renee can fill 1 test tube with “Martian” soil in 2 minutes. How many test tubes can she fill in 10 minutes?

My crewmate Renee can fill 1 test tube with “Martian” soil in 2 minutes. How many test tubes can she fill in 10 minutes?

A. At top speed, most of our rovers can travel 7.5 miles in 30 minutes. At that rate, how long will it take the rover to travel 20 miles?

A. At top speed, most of our rovers can travel 7.5 miles in 30 minutes. At that rate, how long will it take the rover to travel 20 miles?

B. To be more fuel efficient, the rovers should go slower, traveling 2.5 miles in 15 minutes. How much longer will it take to go 20 miles in a rover when trying to conserve fuel than at top speed?

B. To be more fuel efficient, the rovers should go slower, traveling 2.5 miles in 15 minutes. How much longer will it take to go 20 miles in a rover when trying to conserve fuel than at top speed?

A. Sarah Jane, the crew artist, has a fancy 360-degree camera. She can walk at a rate of 2 miles per hour when carrying it. How long would it take her to walk to her favorite filming location, which is 3 miles away?

A. Sarah Jane, the crew artist, has a fancy 360-degree camera. She can walk at a rate of 2 miles per hour when carrying it. How long would it take her to walk to her favorite filming location, which is 3 miles away?

B. If Sarah Jane films for 30 minutes, how long would her total round trip last?

B. If Sarah Jane films for 30 minutes, how long would her total round trip last?

C. If Sarah Jane films for 30 minutes, how long would her total round trip last?

C. If Sarah Jane films for 30 minutes, how long would her total round trip last?

A. If 3 of the crew each need 3,000 calories of food per day and the other 3 each need 2,500 calories per day, how many total calories would they need for a 2-week-long mission?

A. If 3 of the crew each need 3,000 calories of food per day and the other 3 each need 2,500 calories per day, how many total calories would they need for a 2-week-long mission?

B. For a 2-year-long mission?

B. For a 2-year-long mission?

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