A Mission to Mars on the Hawaiian Islands

6:51 minutes

Scientists with BASALT setting up equipment on the side of Mauna Ulu crater. Credit: Chris Intagliata

Both SpaceX and NASA are planning missions to land a crew on Mars. The former’s Elon Musk unveiled his designs for a two-stage transport vehicle. NASA is developing its own system to reach the planet by the 2030s. But once the crews land, how will they communicate with mission control back on Earth?

NASA has set up a base camp next to a volcano on the Hawaiian islands to simulate Martian conditions. Researchers of Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains (BASALT) are testing how to solve the buffering problem on Mars—that is, the near 20-minute lag that astronauts on Mars could experience when trying to communicate with Earthbound mission control. SciFri senior producer Christopher Intagliata checks in from the field at the BASALT base camp.

Segment Guests

Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: There’s been a lot of talk about sending a manned mission to Mars, and earlier this fall Elon Musk unveiled his designs for a two-stage transport vehicle. NASA is developing its own system to reach the planet by the 2030s. But what happens when the crew gets there? How will they communicate with Mission Control on Earth? What kind of experiments will they conduct? Is it going to be like The Martian, just like the movie?

Well, NASA is testing out these questions in an area that’s similar to Mars, and that is at the base of a volcano in Hawaii. Science Friday senior producer Christopher Intagliata is out in the field with the researchers at this lava flow in Hawaii. Tough job, somebody had to do it. And he’s here to check in about what he’s seen this week. What’s going on, Christopher?

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: Hey, Ira, how’s it going?

IRA FLATOW: How’s it going there? Let’s talk about. Are you hanging out on the beach? What are you seeing there?

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: You know, I guarantee you I haven’t set foot on a beach while I’m here. This part of Hawaii is not the palm trees and the white sandy beaches that you might see on postcards. This is a very actively geologic area, and the scenery is different. There’s miles and miles of lava beds. You have hot steam coming out of the lava beds, the ground’s even warm. You have to be careful where you sit. There’s even a bubbling lava lake up the road, with bubbles as big as Volkswagens exploding and splashing lava. So very different from the sandy beaches.

IRA FLATOW: And so you’ve been collecting sounds from what you’re seeing out there.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: I have, yeah, and it turns out this area is very analogous to what young Mars was like three billion years ago. It’s pretty wet and there’s all this activity, so that’s why NASA has picked it as a simulated area for a Mars mission. And they have astronauts going out on these lava beds, taking all sorts of geologic samples. The project is called BASALT, which is appropriate. They like to come up with fun acronyms. That stands for biologic analog science associated with lava terrains.

And so I caught up with a couple of these astronauts out in the field the other day. One of them was Kara Beaton, a human space flight engineer at Johnson Space Center, and the other was Rick Elphic, who’s a planetary scientist at NASA Ames, and here’s how they described the tension between doing science, but also being on a mission.

KARA BEATON: We’ve got limited resources, meaning life support, time, daylight, all of those things that we track. But we also have to maintain some flexibility because when we go out in the field, we don’t know exactly what we’re going to find. So we want to have someone that can help us explore within some loose bounds.

RICK ELPHICK: It’s a methodical approach to executing a mission. A scientist can easily get kind of caught up in, ooh, that’s cool, that’s pretty, that’s something I’d like to investigate and explore. And if you don’t have the time to do it before your oxygen runs out, well, that’s dumb.

IRA FLATOW: It certainly is. We’re talking with Christopher Intagliata and scientists out there in Hawaii on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. And Christopher they don’t want to be dumb, do they?


IRA FLATOW: So what kind of experiments are they testing out in that locale?

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: Yes, so they’re walking around the field and they have sample sites picked out each day. And there’s a whole operations team back at the Kilauea military base in the park. And that’s a huge room of people, you have scientists, computer coders, operations, spaceflight people, they direct them to go to these areas, they’re tracking their movements, and then when the scientists get to an area, they’re supposed to sample. They’re taking pictures, they’re zapping rocks with these x-ray machines and also spectrometers.

And they’re kind of figuring out, if we were on Mars, what sort of instrument or x-ray gun would a real astronaut want to be carrying around in the field pack? What’s the geologic tricorder that they would want to develop for that sort of trip? And it’s a pretty accurate simulation, except for one detail. I was talking with Darlene Lim, who is the principal investigator on the project the other day. And here’s what she said.

DARLENE LIM: A lot of times I start into the whole process of the fact that we’re doing real science under simulated Mars mission conditions, and then, right away, I get asked, well, do you have space suits? Because I think that, visually, people just imagine that you have to have space suits. But what we’ve realized is that if you take a step back, there are so many other first principles you’ve got to meet, questions you’ve got to answer, in terms of how you organize people, allow data to flow, and how do you allow that data to come in to a science team that is, effectively, hundreds of millions of miles away, as well as separated by a delay in the communication between two different groups.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I can imagine that, because I can hardly get cell phone reception when I’m in my basement at home, so how big is this delay in the communication between Mars and Earth?

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: Well, that’s the really fascinating part about their simulation here, is during the Apollo missions, when the astronauts were on the moon, it was about just a little over a second of delay, one-way communication for mission control to talk to the astronauts and then the astronauts to talk back to Earth. When we send astronauts to Mars, we’re looking at anywhere from four to 24 minutes of delay.

So they’re effectively in the future doing missions, investigating the rocks, and then they’re sending back things that get to Earth, you know, it could be 15 minutes later, 20 minutes later, and then the science team on earth– you have hundreds of scientists who want to publish on this material they’re collecting and want to get scientific information. They’re going to have to figure out, how do I help these astronauts that are walking around on the surface, knowing that they’re actually in the future for me. And everything that I’m getting is past information. So they’re also working within these time constraints, figuring out what the delay is. It’s kind of re-imagining mission control.

IRA FLATOW: One last question for you, when you talk to these scientists, do any of them really want to be the first ones to go to Mars?

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: Pretty much every person I’ve asked would go to Mars, yeah, with the caveat that a lot of them want to come back.


IRA FLATOW: Details, details. Well, good luck to you out there. We hope you do get to the beach at least once.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: No, I’m heading to the airport right now, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Have a good and safe holiday weekend, and thanks, everybody out there who helped to put this together. Christopher Intagliata, who is our senior producer, out there on a field trip in Hawaii at the lava flows, talking about Mars and what’s going to be coming up.

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Meet the Producer

About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.