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UH students volunteer to help with Mars mission preparation


    Researchers survey the rugged lava terrain of Mauna Ulu to gather data for an eventual human Mars mission

HILO >> A team of scientists is wrapping up a few weeks of field work in Hawaii, where they spent time in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to prepare for an eventual manned mission to Mars.

Ten students at the University of Hawaii at Hilo volunteered to help with NASA’s ongoing Biological Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains, or BASALT, project, reported The Hawaii Tribune-Herald. They accompanied researchers on hikes around Mauna Ulu, sometimes simply tagging along to hand out bags or carry lunches — but the students said the experience was invaluable.

“My favorite part was just being out there,” said Kyla Defore, a 28-year-old senior studying geology. “I’m learning so much from these scientists and learning the importance of things (such as) how these organisms are growing even without much sunlight, (and) just watching these geologists go out there and being careful not to contaminate anything.”

The researchers were trying to avoid contamination because they were developing protocols for collecting rock samples that could be used on a real mission to Mars. Such a mission would include identifying and protecting samples that could host life.

Mauna Ulu is covered with a thin, crumbly lava rock known as shelly pahoehoe. It’s thought to be similar to the mostly basalt terrain of Mars.

“You have to be prepared,” said Michael Bailey, another UH-Hilo student volunteering with BASALT as an instrument lead. “You can’t just pack up and take a ship to Mars and think everything is going to run smoothly. You have to have a game plan to know what you’re getting into. So it’s vital to do studies like this in a controlled environment.”

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