Living on lava: replicating life on Mars

While spending time in Hawaii may seem like a vacation for some, one USF student has spent the last three months there far from comfort, isolated on the planet’s largest active volcano, Mauna Loa. 

On this red terrain, chemical engineering doctoral student Anne Caraccio simulates living on Mars with others chosen by Hawaii Space Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), a University of Hawaii organization funded by NASA. 

“Of course most people would not want to isolate themselves in a dome inside a habitat on the slopes of a volcano,” Caraccio said in a video transmission to The Oracle. “But if you are passionate enough about the space program … then of course a mission like this is for you.” 

Kim Binsted, HI-SEAS’s principal investigator, said NASA wants to study the stress of crewmembers living together in confinement. Especially since an actual mission to Mars could possibly launch within two decades. 

“A crew to Mars would be together for two and a half years, so of course we want to make sure they can work well together,” Binsted said. 

Throughout the day, the crew fills out surveys and diaries. They also wear armbands that collect physiological data and badges that record pattern in conversation, such as tone of voice. 

“It gets a good idea of how we are behaving around each other,” Caraccio said. 

To stay true to life on another planet, ground control sometimes creates unpredictable complications. Caraccio, for example, once removed all the waste from a broken, waterless toilet — a memorable experience, she said. 

“We’ve had a couple of nights where we lost power, there were a couple days where we didn’t have Internet,” she said. “I’m actually hoping with the last third of the mission that we’ll have some intense scenarios.” 

Though the focus of the mission is to study crew psychology, crewmembers can do their own research, such as growing vegetables for astronauts to eat on long space missions. 

Caraccio’s personal research is called Trash-to-Gas and aims to recycle garbage, which crewmembers sort, into an energy source for oxygen and water production. 

“When astronauts are currently on station, they take trash and compress it into footballs … it’s then burned up in earth’s atmosphere,” she said. “We can’t do that in long duration missions.” 

Every crewmember also studies the volcano’s geology. 

While 8,000 feet above sea level is a bit closer than 140 million miles from Earth, the volcano’s soil is basalt, the rock of the volcanoes on Mars. 

Binsted said the absence of life and “visual isolation” of Mauna Loa also sets a proper Martian setting. 

“Living on the slopes of the volcano is very quiet,” Caraccio said. “The view is spectacular.” 

The landscape of cooled lava can be seen from a single window in the dining area of the 1,000-square-foot dome that houses the five crewmembers. 

The compact dome is crowded with research equipment and essentials. On the first floor, the treadmill is a few feet away from the laptops of the common workplace.

Upstairs are the crew’s living quarters. Caraccio lives in a room with one shelf, a computer and a bed with posters above it.

“To be honest, my room is just a bit smaller than my freshman dorm,” she said. 

There, Caraccio said she emails family and friends every day, though communications are delayed 40 minutes for the sake of realism. 

“It’s really cool to get a nice email or a video or a picture of things that are happening back home,” she said. “It’s incredibly special when you’re in isolation.”

Aside from communication with “Earth,” Caraccio said she keeps morale high by reading, researching, exercising and eating healthy — even if all the food comes dehydrated.

“Half of it is your mind being engaged,” she said. “If your mind is engaged, you can do wonders.”

Caraccio will also install the same color changing LED lights used on the International Space Station before she leaves, she said, to increase crew alertness by regulating sleep patterns.

“Remember, we don’t see the sun too much, so light can be very important to a crew,” she said.

When the crew does go out into the sun, bulky space suits fitted with liquid cooling and air supply are worn. They must also compress and decompress for five minutes when entering and leaving the dome.

Considering the lengths the simulation goes to, Caraccio said the only unrealistic aspect was the crew not knowing each other until the bus drive over. A NASA crew typically trains together for years.

“We were all strangers when we first got here,” she said. “We didn’t know how we would respond to situations.”

Caraccio said the team has gotten along fine nonetheless, and their mission will come to an end July 28.

This will leave Caraccio a few weeks before starting her Ph.D. in chemical engineering in the fall. She said she hopes to continue research in deep space technology.

“I fell in love with the thought of developing technology that was benefiting space travel,” she said. “It’s just exploring the unknown and being able to be a part of a program that reaches new places that we have yet to go and yet to discover.”