Tim Orr/U.S. Geological Survey via AP/File
This photo released by the US Geological Survey shows the east edge of Halemaumau Crater spattering lava at the south corner of the Kilauea's summit lake in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, in Hawaii.

Why search for life on Mars begins in Hawaii

At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, researchers will develop new protocols for collecting – and protecting – biological samples.

The search for Martian life will soon take NASA to an unexpected swath of rocky landscape – Mauna Ulu, Hawaii.

The agency’s Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains (BASALT) mission, which is designed to test technologies for future crewed missions to Mars, begins this week at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Once there, researchers will develop new protocols for collecting – and protecting – biological samples.

“Really, the whole reason of going to Mars is to see if there’s life there,” John Hamilton, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. “There’s a lot of great geology. But are we alone?

Project BASALT, which will be administered through the University of Hawaii, will put researchers at Mauna Ulu for two weeks. Geologists and biologists will work in tandem, searching for new ways to prevent the contamination of rocks that might host living bacteria.

That's a major concern in NASA's search for extraterrestrial life, as it can lead false positives or even missed positives. The agency has unveiled a new device, called the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument, which uses a light beam to detect bio-signals with minimal contamination. 

Communication with mission control will be delayed by up to 20 minutes, just as it would be on Mars. NASA has always relied on analog missions, and Hawaii’s volcanic ridges make excellent imitation Martian landscapes. High elevation stunts plant growth, and volcanic rock is mostly basalt – the same mineral that makes up most of the surface of Mars.

On Mauna Loa, another Hawaiian volcano, astronauts have endured year-long isolation missions as part of NASA’s HI-SEAS project. But while BASALT seeks to improve the quality of Martian research, HI-SEAS was designed to test astronaut’s psychological limits.

The Christian Science Monitor reported:

Psychological research in prisons strongly suggests that solitary confinement can have a negative impact on decision-making and emotional health. The same is likely true in deep space: studies of crew members on the International Space Station have found that on prolonged space journeys isolation may have negative effects on astronaut performance.

“They get to miss the feeling of wind on their faces,” Gloria Leon, a University of Minnesota psychologist who advises NASA on astronaut selection, told the Monitor in August. “They miss the smells of nature, or the smell of food cooking. On a Mars voyage, Earth will be out of view. It will be the equivalent of twilight, looking out of the porthole. So there will be boredom – monotony, really – in terms of the environment.”

On NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations 21, or NEEMO, researchers conduct geological studies in simulated antigravity. These tests require astronauts to dive to space-like conditions in the ocean off the Florida coast.

While analog missions can’t simulate every aspect of prolonged spaceflight – microgravity, for example, may cause physiological effects over months and years – they do yield valuable insights. Fifty percent of the last accepted class of astronauts, Dr. Leon notes, were women. New studies have examined the impact that gender differences, both physical and socially constructed, might have on isolated space crews. Others consider factors like sleep deprivation, as NASA seeks to make more informed decisions about crew selection and maintenance.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why search for life on Mars begins in Hawaii
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today