To get into space, we have to practice at home. That's the idea behind NASA's Earth Analogs program, which tests people, ideas and technology at a variety of inhospitable places around the world. Finding places on Earth with physical similarities to space sites isn't easy - but the space agency has located desert, volcanic, arctic, lake and ocean locations for testing all manner of things.
Red Planet in Canada
The Haughton Mars Project tested equipment and people bound for Mars - at a much more convenient location. Devon Island, Canada, is the world's largest uninhabited island. The rocky Arctic polar desert setting, geologic features and biological attributes of the site offer unique insights into the possible evolution of Mars, say the researchers - in particular, the history of water and of past climates on Mars, the effects of impacts on Earth and on other planets, and the possibilities and limits of life in extreme environments.
At Home in the Desert
NASA's D-RATS program works on developing human and robotic systems in the desert of Arizona. The dry, dusty terrain and extreme temperature swings make the desert a good place to test rovers and habitation units that will eventually be used on the surface of other planets. The testing has happened in the same desert location since 1998. One new technology was the Space Exploration Vehicle - a transforming car that can be configured to fly freely through space, or to sit atop a 12-wheeled chassis to become a burly, capable rover. Its pressurised cabin can carry two astronauts on 14-day trips, according to NASA.
Volcaon Geology in Hawaii
Even though most people prefer its beaches or lush greenery, Hawaii has some pretty rugged landscape, especially on the side of Mauna Kea, a remote and cold dormant volcano on the "Big Island" of Hawaii. Researchers there are looking at ways to search for water ice in lunar or planetary environments, and ways to extract, store, and use minerals, metals, and sunlight. In 2010, a project dug up oxygen-rich soils, similar to those present on the moon.
Origins of Life in a Chilly Extraterrestrial Lake
Deep under the waters of Pavilion Lake in British Columbia, Canada, NASA has teamed up with international organizations to study the origin of the freshwater microbialites. Astrobiologists are applying findings from this research to the search for life in our solar system and beyond. In Pavilion Lake, researchers use DeepWorker subs to mimic the ways a robotic precursor mission would explore a near Earth asteroid. Refining the process in the context of the lake will make it easier when humans reach an asteroid surface.
Extreme Ocean Operations
Living on the floor of the ocean in Florida can be a good way to simulate what it's like to be on the International Space Station - at least that's what NASA thinks. Aquarius is the world's only permanent underwater habitat and laboratory, and it lies just off the Key Largo coast. Long-duration missions, which last up to three weeks, help astronauts find out what it's like to live on a spacecraft and execute undersea space walks and rover-drives. This summer, they will undertake a week-long mission to replicate conditions on an asteroid.
Burping Sulfur on the Moons of Jupiter
The Sulfur Springs of Borup Fiord Pass, Ellesmere Island provide an ideal habitat to prepare for a geological study of Jupiter's moons. It's unique on Earth: waters flow or seep onto the surfaces of glaciers, and elemental sulfur, gypsum, and calcite precipitate from their waters. At the same time, hydrogen sulfide gas is released to the air. The unusual chemistry, in combination with the extremely cold and dry environment, make these springs an analog for hydrothermal sites beneath ice on Mars and Europa.
Spacesuits in the Aussie Spinifex
The spacesuit prototype seen here currently has no air conditioning, just a small battery powered fan. It may have been July, but temperatures in the Australian Pilbara Desert can still exceed 30 degrees Celsius - that's one sweaty spacesuit! The NASA NDX-1 suit was designed by scientists at the University of North Dakota, and has six layers of protection, pressurisation and softer seams for easy movement. That made it ideal for NASA and the Australian Mars Society to test spacesuits in a Mars-like environment.