South Pole Construction Offers Mars Rehearsal

Imagine building an 80,000 square foot structure that can be raised on hydraulic lifts, and is outfitted with elaborate solar paneling, telescopes that can peer deep into space and plumbing that won't freeze at minus 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Oh, and there are a couple of other considerations: the project's location can kill workers if they're not properly equipped and all supplies will need to be flown in on board relatively small aircraft.

Sound like a mission in outer space? Scientists like Pascal Lee, SETI Institute planetary scientist at NASA, think so and hope the actual project — the current rebuilding of the South Pole station in Antarctica — might offer valuable lessons for a time when humans take up residence on Mars.

"Compared to Mars, the environment is relatively friendly," Lee says. "But in a profound sense, creating an infrastructure on Mars and on the poles is very much about extremely careful planning."

New Shapes Emerging

This austral summer (Antarctica's summer ranges from November to February), careful planning and nearly four years of construction has finally resulted in a highly visible change at the earth's bottom. In addition to the previous dome station that resembles a giant black golf ball half buried in snow, the first wing of the new station has been raised and propped upon 60-foot-high steel stilts that were driven deep into the pole's two-mile-deep snow and ice covering.

"The most dramatic change will occur this year," said Jerry Marty, manager of the massive construction project, in a statement before leaving for the continent. "No longer will the dome be the focal point of the pole."

The new wing is the first of three C-shaped abodes to be raised on the metal stilts. When complete in 2005, the structure should broaden the station's year-round capacity from cramped quarters for 50 to spacious room for 110 scientists and support staff.

Scientists come to the pole to conduct an array of studies. The area hosts several high powered telescopes, since Antarctica's cold, clear skies offer prime viewing. Also at the pole is a $10 million underground instrument designed to detect neutrinos from the edge of the universe.

Engineers hope the new station will last longer than its predecessor since its raised position is designed allow searing winds to blow snow under the structure rather than against it. As snow levels rise, the structure can even be hoisted higher to offer more clearance. Right now workers must constantly dig out the domed station with tractors to ensure the entrance isn't smothered by drifts

There may not be much snow on Mars, but scientists point out the Red Planet and Earth's underside share other similarities.

Cold, Cold, Cold

Temperatures on Mars rarely reach above 68 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and scientists suspect a scant water supply is permanently frozen in polar ice caps. In Antarctica's interior, temperatures average about 68 degrees below zero and even though the continent is covered in snow and ice, it's a virtual frozen desert, receiving less than four inches of precipitation each year.

"We're learning to work in temperatures at minus 100 to minus 120," says Paul Sipiera, president of the Planetary Studies Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Illinois which has launched expeditions to Antarctica to search for meteorites. "Mars can get as cold as minus 180. So that's good practice."

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