The Sciences

Simulating Mars on Earth

Atop a lava field in Hawaii, scientists are learning what life could be like for settlers on the Red Planet.


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
Photo Credits: Sian Proctor

Before humans ever hop into a spaceship destined for Mars, we better know what's in store for us — physically and mentally. That's why NASA scientists built a dome-shaped lab called HI-SEAS in the middle of a Hawaiian lava field. 

For its inaugural crew in 2013, six non-astronaut applicants were chosen to inhabit the dome for 120 days. They gave up their phones and communicated with the outside world via a time-lag to mimic Martian communications. They could only leave the dome while wearing a mock spacesuit. And all their meals were crafted from shelf-stable ingredients that could someday travel to Mars.

Here, an inside look at their life inside the dome — and what it says about living conditions in a future Martian colony.

Photo Credits: Sian Proctor

The crew was completely sealed off from Earth. Before going outside, and upon re-entry, team members would change their clothing inside this makeshift airlock.

Photo Credits: Kate Greene

Team member Sean Proctor prepares to step outside HI-SEAS for a hike on "Mars."

Photo Credits: Sian Proctor

NASA identified 33 major risks in sending humans to Mars. What will settlers eat? How will they adjust to confined living? Are humans mentally prepared to live an isolated existence on a desolate planet?

The first HI-SEAS mission helped answer some of these questions, and ongoing missions to the habitat will provide even more data — laying the critical groundwork for humanity's future outposts elsewhere in the solar system.

Read more about the mission in our exclusive feature article »

Photo Credits: Sian Proctor

The HI-SEAS dome is positioned atop a lava field on the Mauna Loa volcano. If any of the crew members decide to go for a walk outside the confines of the dome, they must don a complete suit that simulates the necessary trappings for a stroll on Mars.

Photo Credits: Sian Proctor

Here, five of the six crew members of the first HI-SEAS mission. Every morning, except for Sundays, the crew would gather at 8:45 a.m. for breakfast.

Crew members took turns cooking. Some creative concoctions they made included Spam-and-egg breakfast sandwiches and lemon-blueberry cornmeal pancakes.

The meal doubled as a morning meeting, and it's also where they completed the important task of evaluating their meals.

Photo Credits: Sian Proctor

It's no coincidence that NASA placed the HI-SEAS habitat on a lava field. The rocky, barren landscape is pretty comparable to the Martian surface.

In this photograph, team member Oleg Abramov examines a lava tube. Thanks to satellite imagery, we now know that both Mars and the moon also have lava tubes and skylights.

These caves and holes likely formed the same way they do on Earth, carved by a channel of flowing lava. Caves and skylights on Mars and the moon have recently attracted the attention of researchers keen on finding the best places to build extraterrestrial habitats (as well as those looking for extraterrestrial — likely microbial — life).

That's because temperatures underground are less variable than on the surface, and caves would protect inhabitants from some space radiation. 

Photo Credits: Sian Proctor

One of the team's objectives was to innovate in the kitchen. That's because, for a long-duration mission such as one to Mars, food becomes critically important. Astronauts often suffer from reduced appetites, which can put their health at risk. Part of the reason might be so-called menu fatigue — getting tired of the same old freeze-dried options.

So the HI-SEAS crew tested ready-to-eat astronaut-like meals versus creative, cooked meals. These creative meals were pulled together from an extensive pantry that included things like quinoa, basmati rice, all kinds of dehydrated meats and vegetables, grains, flours, spices, powdered eggs, powdered milk, and quite a bit more. Participants were tasked with figuring out which ingredients and meals might work on Mars — essentially building the first draft of NASA’s Martian cookbook.

Here, team member Oleg Abramov prepares a cherry pie.

Photo Credits: Sian Proctor

The night sky would, of course, appear a bit different from Mars. But here on Earth, the cosmic display was impressive nonetheless.

Photo Credits: Sian Proctor

Each HI-SEAS team member also conducted his or her own research project. This mimics the activity of astronauts on an actual Mars mission, who would likely be studying Martian geology, collecting psychological and physiological data, and keeping up with various engineering tasks.

Here, team member Kate Greene catches up on her work, analyzing data on how her fellow crewmates are sleeping.

Photo Credits: Sian Proctor

In another study, Simon Engler studied crew interactions with robotic companions such as Pleo, the robotic dinosaur at left.

Simon’s project also has real-world implications. It’s unlikely a cat or dog will accompany future astronauts to Mars, but robots will most definitely be a part of the mission. And if some animatronic circuitry can help relieve astronauts’ stress and provide companionship, then all the better.

Photo Credits: Sian Proctor

Laundry is another Earth ritual that doesn't fully translate to a Martian environment. Astronauts on the ISS just throw away their dirty duds at the moment.

HI-SEAS crew member Yajaira Sierra-Sastre wanted to see if antimicrobial garments could stay wearable longer. Crew members wore treated garments and slept on treated bedsheets, after which Sierra-Sastre tested them for microbial life including aerobic bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, mold, and yeast. 

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.