These scientists are preparing for life on Mars—by studying southern Utah
Utah’s otherworldly desert scenery is often showcased in Hollywood blockbusters like “Indiana Jones,” “Star Trek,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Winding through the canyons and valleys of southern Utah can feel like an extraterrestrial joy ride, and there may be more truth to this similarity than we thought.
The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), which is owned and operated by the Mars Society, built a space analog facility in Wayne County to research the technology, operations, and science required for human space exploration. The MDRS hosts an eight-month field season for professional scientists, engineers, and college students in training for human operations on Mars, with most missions lasting 2-3 weeks in duration.
“The MDRS hosts 6-7 person crews from the US and around the world every year, typically from early October until late May, providing them with a facility to carry out important research and field studies that will benefit future human explorers on Mars,” says Michael Stoltz, media director on the project. “Each crew has its own research focus, so the type of science and technology being studied and tested at the Utah station varies widely. Some of the more common types of research being conducted by crews include engineering, communications, microbiology, robotics, geology, human factors like psychology and isolation studies, astronomy, food production and nutrition, aerial (drone) navigation, and leadership studies.”
Hollywood was onto something: While locations all around the world were considered for the facility, the area nearby Hanksville was ultimately selected as the location for the MDRS due to its Mars-like terrain and geology. The site, while relatively isolated in the southern Utah desert, is also situated in a location that allows for easy logistical and resupply access for incoming and outgoing crews.
This easy access, however, has also been causing problems for the MDRS.
“The Mars Society has been concerned as of late with the number of unsolicited visitors attempting to tour and trespass on the premises of our research facility,” says the senior Mars Society official. “With the major uptick in the number of tourists coming into southern Utah, the MDRS has experienced serious problems for their crews in simulation, especially those involved in isolation studies.”
PHOTOS APPEAR COURTESY OF THE MARS SOCIETY
Despite the warning signs informing passersby that MDRS crews are involved in scientific research, tourists and local residents have entered the area and even knocked on the door asking to tour the station. Some people have recently attempted to camp in the area and use drones to fly above the station while crew members are out on extravehicular activity (EVA) missions, further disrupting their simulation work. There has even been a number of incidents of people yelling at or threatening MDRS staff who ask these unscheduled visitors to leave the area.
Some Utah tourism websites have begun listing MDRS as a “tourist attraction,” which it clearly isn’t. The Mars Society has notified these websites, but few agreed to edit this error. The Hanksville town council and local chamber of commerce have also been asked to discontinue referring visitors to MDRS as a location of interest.
While the facility is strictly closed to the public, detailed information about the research station can be found on the MDRS website, including floor plans of the main habitat and an overview of the five other structures on campus. These facilities include two observatories, a “GreenHab” that houses conventional and aquaponic growing systems, a microbiological and geological laboratory, and a refitted Chinook helicopter that “can house an ATV/rover for repairs and will be used for engineering research,” according to the website. Applications to be considered for future crews can also be submitted online.
Citing crews from Belgium, Australia, France, Italy, and more during just the 2021-2022 field season alone, researchers from around the world are continuously learning more about the red planet 111.87 million miles away—all from rural Utah.
“MDRS began operations in 2001 as a fully volunteer enterprise,” the MDRS site reads. “Over 1,000 people have participated as crew and many are now involved in other analog studies at different places around the world.”