NASA scientists soon will explore a barren Arctic meteorite impact crater to attempt to learn more about Mars and its early history, while testing technologies useful for future robotic and human exploration of the planet.

From June 22 to July 26, a 20-member science team from NASA and several other research organizations will explore the Haughton Impact Crater and its surroundings on Devon Island in the Arctic Circle.

Scientists consider the site a potential Mars analog because many of its geologic features, such as the crater's ice-rich terrains, its ancient lake sediments and nearby networks of small valleys, resemble those reported at the surface of Mars. The site may shed light in particular on the early history of Mars, when the planet's climate may have been wetter and warmer.

"The cold, relatively dry, windy and unvegetated environment at the Haughton site is milder and wetter than present-day Mars, but it may give us an idea of what early Mars was like and how some of its surface features were formed," said Principal Investigator Dr. Pascal Lee of NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA.

During the expedition, Dr. Omead Amidi and other engineers from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, Pittsburgh, PA, will conduct field tests of an experimental, robotic helicopter. "The mission provides a great opportunity to demonstrate the feasibility and the value of robotic aircraft for mapping and surveying applications," Amidi said.

Carnegie Mellon's small, 160-pound autonomous helicopter has vision-based stability and position control, as well as an onboard navigation computer, laser rangefinder and video system for site mapping. More information about the unpiloted helicopter may be found at the following website:

In addition to the tests with the autonomous helicopter, scientists also will conduct experiments with a ground-penetrating radar system, a field spectrometer, drilling equipment and a stereo camera.

The radar system will be deployed in an attempt to map ground-ice and other subsurface conditions within and outside the crater's 12- mile (20-kilometer) diameter. "The ability to find underground ice, both for human consumption and geologic studies, will be critical in the exploration of Mars," said Dr. Aaron Zent of Ames, Dr. Lee's post- doctoral research advisor.

Scientists will use a field spectrometer to determine the site's reflective qualities and better understand the crater's compositional evolution. In another experiment, scientists will use a portable drill to obtain core samples from ten feet deep in the frozen ground. Core samples of sediments from a lake that once occupied the crater will provide information about local climate evolution. Since the use of liquid drilling lubricants might be precluded on Mars, none will be used in this test.

A portable stereo camera system previously used by Carnegie Mellon's Nomad rover during its unprecedented 133-mile wheeled trek through Chile's Atacama Desert last summer will provide high- resolution images of the site, and produce images for a 360 degree photo-realistic virtual reality project being developed by Ames' Intelligent Mechanisms Group.

Using laptop computer systems and "mobile workstations" developed by Ames' Intelligent Mobile Technologies Team, scientists will communicate with other field team members and send live images via a wireless link. Team members will operate from a base camp on a terrace of the Haughton River within the crater's perimeter and explore the site with All-Terrain Vehicles. Supplies will be brought in by Twin Otter airplane, while a helicopter will aid exploration of remote sites.

As part of the expedition's educational outreach program, the following website will be updated regularly with new data and images as available:

The total cost of the project is $80,000. NASA is partially funding the project through a National Research Council grant. Additional support is provided by Ames Research Center; NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX; the Geological Survey of Canada; the Polar Continental Shelf Project of Canada; the Nunavut Research Institute, Canada; the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University; NovAtel Communications, Calgary, Alberta, Canada; and the National Geographic Society.

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