Desert Analogs of Mars

As part of our training regimen, we PHEnOMnauts will be undergoing a couple of rotations at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) near Hanksville, Utah this month and next.

PHEnOM Blue (Crew 192) is there now. In two weeks, they will be replaced by the incoming Gold Crew (193) which I am part of as the geologist/astronomer.


The Mars Society runs three analog field stations in various deserts, the first being the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) at Haughton Crater north of the Arctic Circle. MDRS was the second such station, and EuroMars in Iceland is the third. A fourth, MarsOz, is in the planning stages for Australia.

MDRS in Utah. Habitat and greenhouse are visible

These analog field stations are meant to simulate human missions on Mars. To this end, they use Mars-like constraints to develop field tactics, test habitat design features and tools, and to assess crew selection protocols. This knowledge base will be useful for when we send humans to the Red Planet.

When “on sim”, the crew will go outside in simulated suits on EVAs that are arranged in advance to minimize wasted time (which means wasted oxygen). Long distance travel will be done with ATVs. The crew will conserve water and eat food with long shelf life, just as they would on Mars. Their schedules will be full every day, with little time for recreation. Every measure has been taken, within reason and budget, to simulate a frontier life on the Red Planet.

My Role

As the geologist/astronomer, I will be carrying out a few activities that have been cleared ahead of time with Mars Society staff. For a few hours daily, I will be in the Musk Observatory to monitor the sun for telltale signs of coronal mass eruptions (CMEs). The proton storms from these CMEs are a known threat to humans on Mars. Without Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic field, these protons will rip through human bodies at some percentage of the speed of light, breaking chemical bonds in their DNA and giving them radiation sickness. Being able to predict solar flares ahead of time gives human crews the ability to get to shelter in time to withstand these storms.

For desert treks, I will be carrying a GPS unit and an outside researcher will assess how efficient the paths I took were (relative to the terrain). This research has consequences for astronauts on Mars, since they will be breathing bottled oxygen while on EVA. Metabolic load makes a big difference in oxygen usage, so an astronaut that takes an easier path towards an objective might use less oxygen than if he took a harder path, even if the harder path is shorter. Hopefully we will get the chance to present our findings at the next Mars Society conference!


During our last training session in October 2017, we had a meeting to discuss our time at MDRS. One of the topics was how to communicate with me on EVA. Being deaf, I cannot use the radio. One solution we came up with was to use a couple of Beartooth devices to send texts and voice messages between phones without cell service. We will be testing this method on-sim during our rotation from April 21 to May 6!

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