Student blasts off to Mars (okay, Utah)

February 7, 2008

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By Stuart Colcleugh

Kerry Cupit left Burnaby Mountain Feb. 2 on the next best thing to a mission to Mars.

The fourth-year SFU earth sciences undergrad has taken two weeks from his studies to be the crew geologist on a Mars Society Canada expedition to the International Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southern Utah.

The research facility supports Mars analogue field studies in preparation for future expeditions to Mars. A Mars analogue is any environment that has features similar to Mars in terms of geology and topography.

“It’s quite a thrill and I’m quite lucky to be involved,” says Cupit, who heard about the expedition through a departmental e-mail last year and submitted a successful research proposal with assistance from Glyn Williams-Jones, assistant professor of earth sciences.Cupit was chosen for the all-Canadian expedition along with seven other crew members, including engineers, biologists, computer scientists and other researchers.

MDRS is one of a series of stations where researchers can carry out their work in a remote, Mars-like environment to better understand how people will be able to live and work effectively on earth’s closest planetary neighbour.

“That means our communication with the outside world is delayed, we only eat what we grow and we must be self-sufficient, among other simulation parameters,” Cupit explains. “We even wear spacesuits outside the living module to simulate difficulties in mobility and dexterity that Mars scientists may one day face.”

Cupit will be conducting a soil-gas survey, which involves digging into the terrain and inserting tubing hooked up to gas analyzers that measure the concentrations of various gases.

“If there are high concentrations of gases in some areas and not in others that can tell us something about the geology, such as whether or not there are significant faults, molten rock deep beneath the surface or even biology in the area.”

Cupit’s is not the first Mars-related SFU initiative. Adjunct communication professor Stephen Braham is the Canadian principal investigator for the NASA Haughton-Mars analogue project on Canada’s northern Devon Island, where an international interdisciplinary research team has been studying conditions at a Mars-like crater for more than a decade

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