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."

To work in the South Pole's inhospitable conditions, workers pile on 35-pounds of layers, including heavy boots, long underwear, fleece, down parkas and wind gear. "Everyone has their own way of doing it, but layering is the key," explains Valerie Carroll, spokesperson for the Massachusetts-based company that hires the crews, Raytheon Polar Service.

South Pole workers do at least have oxygen to breath — albeit at reduced levels — since piled snow raises the pole's level to about 10,000 feet. Mars' atmosphere is mostly made up of nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

"If we really do get to Mars, there will have to be a bubble over the entire operation to survive in the atmosphere," says Sipiera.

Icy Isolation

But one of the most challenging aspects of the job, reports crew chief Marty, isn't the cold or altitude, but isolation. The closest cluster of human habitation is more than 800 miles away at the continent's McMurdo station. And more than 8,000 miles of ocean and ice separates the South Pole from the closest South American city.

That means all materials and supplies must first be shipped to McMurdo station and then flown on LC-130 military transport planes to the South Pole. Since the transportation is so timely and costly, many parts of the new South Pole station are first assembled in the U.S. and then disassembled before shipping.

"In Antarctica, if you forget a part or if you bring the wrong wrench, you can't just run over to the corner store," Lee points out. "So you have to plan ahead."

Similarly, a journey to Mars would require astronauts to carry all required parts with them and crews would most likely rehearse on Earth any work to be done on Mars.

During the winter months between February and October, planes can't even access the South Pole station since their hydraulic fluid would freeze almost instantly. For Jerri Nielsen, the 47-year-old South Pole doctor, the isolation of the pole posed especially dire consequences, since she was forced to treat herself for suspected breast cancer until warmer weather arrived.

Learning to Stay Sane

Isolation isn't just impractical, it can also be brutal on morale. NASA's Lee, who once spent 14 months in Antarctica, says the experience was an important lesson in keeping composure during long isolation — a lesson equally important for a long journey to Mars.

"It was the … most bizarre experience of my life," Lee remembers.

Although NASA still doesn't have a mandate to send people to Mars, scientists estimate the journey would take at least two and half years. To help plan for such a trip, Lee and other members of the Mars Society, a non-profit research group focused on the Red Planet, constructed a simulated Mars exploration station on Canada's Devon Island in the Arctic. This summer, Lee and others will take up residence in the station under a joint NASA-SETI Institute-Mars Society program, to discover the needs of would-be Mars travelers.

While Lee says the ongoing Arctic mission should answer many questions about potential challenges of a Mars mission, he says it's worth taking note of experiences at both poles.

"There are advantages and limitations to each site," says Lee. "But together, all of these experiences count toward getting an idea of what it will take to get to Mars."