Have spacesuit, will travel! But what else may come along for the ride? The Planetary Society has joined forces with a consortium of scientists led by the Carnegie Institution of Washington to test how well spacesuits can protect both the astronauts who wear them and the distant worlds they may explore.
Every August for the past several years, researchers have trekked to the island of Spitsbergen (part of the Svalbard archipelago), approximately 600 miles south of the North Pole. The Planetary Society is cosponsoring this year's Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition (AMASE), enabling the testing of a spacesuit designed for the Moon and Mars. Learn more about the expedition.
From August 8 to 22, researchers will be conducting a number of experiments with a modified Mark III spacesuit replica. Expedition team member Jake Maule, with the Carnegie Institution, will suit up to explore the frigid, arctic terrain. Astrobiologists will sterilize and test his suit for microorganisms before Maule takes the suit out in the field and will then test it again upon his return.
Scientists will be looking for both organisms Maule might pick up on his journeys as well as any that may leak from inside the sealed environment of the spacesuit itself. Researchers will also observe how the sterilization process affects the joints of the suit and will watch for any general damage or deterioration of the suit that may happen during fieldwork.
"Astronauts wear spacesuits to protect them from alien environments," said Bruce Betts, The Planetary Society's Director of Projects. "But can we protect alien environments from the bacterial hitch hikers carried by every human being?"
While testing the spacesuit, researchers will try out new tools for communication and data logging, such as a wearable computer, throat microphone, and digital display. The team will also test their ability to manipulate sterile sample containers without contaminating them -- an essential procedure for one day searching for life on Mars.
Other expedition activities will include tests by Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers of a an agile rover designed to safely maneuver cliff faces as well as engineering models of instruments headed for Mars on the planned Mars Science Laboratory mission and being developed for future missions.
Svalbard, meaning "cold coast," is an archipelago composed of four main islands and about 150 smaller ones. It's a Norwegian territory located about halfway between Tromso in Norway and the North Pole. There, researchers face one hazard that astronauts will not find on Mars -- polar bears!