Duplicating Mars on Mauna Loa: Project making headway


Plans to build a Mars-like habitat on Mauna Loa are now in the hands of the state’s Office of Environmental Quality Control.

University of Hawaii-Manoa’s Department of Information and Computer Sciences, working with Cornell University and The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, better known as PISCES, are putting together an experimental site at the mountain’s 8,000-foot elevation, according to a draft environmental assessment published this weekend. The site would have a small, portable habitat similar to one that might be built for Mars exploration, should the United States pursue a trip to that planet. They would use the site for five years, then dismantle the habitat.

Officials noted the similarity between Mauna Loa’s cinder cone ridge, surrounded by lava flows, and Mars’ surface. The site has previously been disturbed and contains no rare, threatened or endangered species, has little vegetation and no archaeological sites or practices, the draft environmental assessment said. UH officials said they expect a finding of no significant impact.

“A number of serious risks are associated with long-term human space exploration, including radiation, microgravity, confinement in small spaces, and nutritional deficits, that can affect crew behavior, health and mission success,” the document said. “To successfully return to the moon, or venture onwards to Mars, asteroids or other deep-space destinations, scientists will need to assess these risks and develop reliable countermeasures. Some of these risks that require study are also common to isolated, confined and/or extreme environments here on Earth.”

Hawaii has several areas with similar conditions to those found on Mars or the moon, with “the geological, operational and psychological characteristics of the environments astronauts will experience as they explore the solar system,” the document said.

The site is half an acre on a quarried cinder cone ridge, located within the Conservation District and part of the Mauna Loa Forest Reserve.

The habitat would use either solar power or an LPG generator. The structure would be about 900 square feet and less than 20 feet tall. The access road would be gated and locked. Crews of six people would train at the site for missions up to one year long

The crews would adhere to strict guidelines for the training missions, “only venturing outside in simulated space suits, communicating with ‘Earth’ via channels disrupted by latencies and drop-outs,” the draft assessment said.

Student participation opportunities will exist through internships, classes and outreach.

The public may comment on the draft environmental assessment through Jan. 22. People may send comments to Geometrician Associates, PO Box 396, Hilo, HI 96721.