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Mars colony growing on North Dakota prairie

Contractors are working through the summer to complete the latest addition of four research pods to the UND space studies Mars habitat research site. Project leader Pablo de León hopes to be running a mission by early fall using two of the new pods. The pod at right is the habitat's central unit, which was built in 2011 and has been since been used for experiments. Andrew Haffner / Forum News Service

Mars is famously known to be a red planet, but the UND rugby field just off Interstate 29 in Grand Forks is downright green.

The difference wouldn't matter if it weren't for the Martian colony that's been growing like an odd assortment of mushrooms on a neighboring stretch of grass. The little village of five modules, each a white cylinder about 20 feet long and enclosed in a soft, inflatable casing, make up a newly expanded UND space studies test site created with NASA funding to conduct research that could one day guide astronauts settling on far-away worlds.

The project just added a series of four new pods to bulk up its research capabilities and has developed under the leadership of Pablo de León, a University of North Dakota researcher and associate professor known for his work in designing the next generation of space suits. When speaking about the habitat over the phone from NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., de León joked that, at least in winter, the North Dakota fields are a suitable comparison to those on Mars. But there's no question that the edge of campus is more hospitable than that planet's dusty plains. For starters, the atmosphere of the red planet isn't much for breathing and, unless you've packed some snacks, your Martian excursion is going to be a hungry one. That's not even including the potential ground cover of toxic grit due to the presence of perchlorates, a chemical found in the soil of certain parts of the planet by exploratory robots.

All of these are challenges that must be met by any future colonists, and so they are the big questions that de León and teams of UND graduate students are attempting to answer.

"We're trying to make it safe for human crew to go to Mars and, in some cases, there is no solution yet," de León said. "But one of the things we're trying to do is find those solutions or to better understand the problems."

The colony's main pod, a central living space, was awarded about $750,000 in grant funding from NASA in 2009 and was completed in 2011. UND graduate students teamed with the space agency have been using it since then to complete research missions and produce data to help the agency's scientists better answer major questions about life in an unearthly habitat. A team of three students lived aboard the unit for 10 days in 2013. A year after that, a crew spent 30 days living in the pod.

The latest activity at the site came just weeks ago when crews delivered the four new pods to expand the research capacity of the mock base. The latest units were funded in 2015 by another NASA grant of $750,000. They're not yet finished, but the mock base is now centered by its main pod, which is lined with bunks for sleeping and features a tiny bathroom and kitchenette, and is flanked by the newcomers, each of which is designated for a specific purpose.

The new amenities in the village will eventually include an extravehicular bay, which will contain the base's rover and maintenance functions. The would-be colonists will also soon have the benefit of a plant production, or gardening, unit with self-contained lighting and irrigation arrays to grow some of the colony's food. Finally, the colonists will get a pod for exercise — zero-gravity will do a number on your muscles — and a pod set aside for geological experiments. Mars, as a planet, is big on geology.

Millions of miles from a dentist

The most recent round of grant money has covered the fabrication of the pods, much of which was done locally with the help of contractors like Grand Forks Welding and Machine Co.

It's also been used to pay for other areas of the base, including teams of graduate students. There are 11 students currently working on the habitat, though de León said there probably have been about 50 total who have participated in the initiative and conducted research over its life.

"We not only look at the scientific aspects or experiments per se, but also the daily life, the challenges that astronauts will look at and have on the surface," de León said.

Though the UND crew can't replicate weaker gravity, stronger radiation or any of the other more challenging elements of life on Mars, they can simulate to a large degree the need for self-reliance.

"An expedition to another planet is such a wide thing that you need to include almost every single aspect of human knowledge," de León said. "You need to think about everything, every little thing that sustains human life. What kind of equipment do you need? If some little piece breaks, can you replicate it with a 3-D printer? Then you go to nutrition, all sorts of health issues. How do you handle a tooth extraction when you're millions of miles from the earth?"

To answer some of those questions, de León said the local researchers have been working with a team of scientists at different NASA centers across the country. The results from the UND team have already taken a step into the void when researchers aboard the International Space Station replicated an experiment first done in the local habitat by students observing microbes.

Moving forward, de León said, two of the latest UND modules — the extravehicular pod and the plant production unit — should be operational by September, with the first expanded mission likely to happen sometime in late summer or early fall. The final two pods should be done sometime next year.

De León said he was proud of the base's accomplishments so far and said its continued development "took trust from both sides" by NASA and the university, which he believes is the only school in the U.S. doing this kind of work. "The fact that we were selected twice — that we first got the grant to create the first module, and then we were selected again to expand it — speaks to the fact that we deliver projects that we say we'll deliver," he said.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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