Gearing up for Mars

February 05, 2004, vol. 29, no. 3
By Marianne Meadahl

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SFU could soon have a new role in furthering space exploration.

Funding through the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the B.C. Knowledge Development fund has enabled expansion of the school of kinesiology's environmental physiology unit, making it possible to attain the atmospheric pressure found on Mars.

SFU is the only Canadian university to house such a facility, which serves as a high altitude chamber for testing such conditions as altitude sickness. The unit is capable of achieving an atmospheric pressure of one per cent of a standard earth sea level (equivalent to that found on Mars). That means testing equipment such as space suits and even small rovers in the bullet-like, eight-metre long by two-metre diameter chamber under Mars-like conditions will now be possible.

One per cent of atmospheric pressure is similar to the air found at an altitude of 33.5 kilometres. The work involved the installation of a more powerful vacuum pump to generate this extremely low pressure. The previous level for the chamber was an atmospheric pressure equivalent to around 9 kilometres (slightly higher than Mt. Everest).

“The goal of space missions is to send up necessary and reliable equipment, and the success rate in doing so, up until the current Spirit and Opportunity rovers, has been very low,” says Andrew Blaber, director of SFU's aerospace physiology laboratory. “Obviously we can't send humans under the current conditions. But as technology improves, we can improve the chance of success by testing new equipment and improvements to space suits and other apparatus under similar atmospheric conditions.”

Blaber and a team of researchers will also look at the effects of long durations of weightlessness on human physiology in astronauts returning from space. They will undertake pre-flight tests to simulate conditions and work toward finding ways to best treat them upon their return.

“Although an astronaut will weigh one third less on Mars, it will take the same effort to start walking, or to stop in a space suit as on Earth,” notes Blaber, who holds a Canadian Space Agency (CSA) grant to study the effects of longterm space flight on human physiology. “During the flight they have also lost muscle tissue and bone mass and will be prone to injury.”

The unit's new capabilities open up a whole new area of research at the university. It comes on the heels of the U.S. backing of future space missions to Mars, in light of the successful landing of the two rovers.

The university's ability to undertake Mars related research also has the attention of SFU adjunct communication professor Stephen Braham, who works on human moon-Mars mission planning and exploration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the CSA. Braham is interested in using the facility as a test-bed for wireless communications. Braham is the Canadian principal investigator for the NASA Haughton-Mars project on Devon Island, where researchers are studying conditions at a Mars-like crater.

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