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A look inside — and outside — the Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah

Posted: 10:30 PM, Jun 23, 2024
Updated: 2024-06-24 14:22:41-04

HANKSVILLE, Utah — For generations, scientists and dreamers have looked to the skies and wondered what it would be like to live on Mars.

This curiosity has led to the founding of the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) — not on Mars, but in the Mars-like landscape of Hanksville, Utah.

When you see the beautiful, red rock scenery, it's easy to understand why this location was chosen.

Nestled among the red rocks, you'll find a stark white building known as the Habitat, or "HAB," with a sign marking where Earth ends and Mars begins.

The MDRS has been in operation since 2001, with the lore of spacesuits walking around the Utah desert being a fascination for many.

Since then, it has completed 20 seasons, nearly 300 missions, and more than 2,730 Martian days — which is about 7 ½ years in Mars time.

Most missions to the facility last about 2-3 weeks, depending on the research being done and the crew's ability to stay.

WATCH: Simulation gives Utah teachers experience of living, working on Mars

The campus has two observatories, a science dome, a greenhouse, a maintenance bay, and the HAB, which houses the crew and their supplies.

Here is the layout of the main HAB, which has two levels and can hold up to seven crew members with a standard complement of six.

MDRS Habitat Floor Plan

To experience what life on Mars might be like, I spent a day with the astronauts who inhabit this unique research station.


In video below, the crew introduces themselves ahead of the mission:


Aravind Karthigeyan (Crew Scientist) Noah Mugan (Crew Biologist) Rishabh Pandey (Crew Engineer) Kristina Mannix (Astronomer/HSO Officer) Avery Abramson (Astronomer/Executive Officer) and Prakruti “Pari” Raghunarayan (Crew Commander) are the crew on this mission.

"We have a variety of physicists, astronomers, and engineers on the crew, and essentially when you're applying to be an astronaut for NASA, those are some of the majors you need," explained Raghunarayan, the commander of Crew 299, known as the Bevonauts, from the University of Texas, Austin.

Many of the crew aspire to be impactful in the scientific community as they continue to grow in their studies and learn new things. So when the opportunity came to be a part of this program, they jumped at the chance.

“This facility is actually the largest and most well-known research facility in terms of isolation,” Raghunarayan said. “The realism definitely is what makes this experience a lot, well, not even close to home — furthest away from home.”

They prepared for two years after applying and being accepted to plot out exactly what their scientific goals would be.

Since the whole crew are college students, they are a little different from the normal crew that inhabits this base.

Most of them admitted in the first few days that the shock of leaving behind a lot of the comforts of modern life was somewhat difficult.

Life inside the HAB involves strict planning and conservation of resources, including water and power. The crew's diet consists of dehydrated food, requiring careful water usage.

“It was like somewhat of a shock, at least the first one or two days,” Karthigeyan said.

Isolated from the world, just as they would be on Mars, this crew starts each day with a plan and scientific goals.


Watch video below to see what the crew does when exploring the Martian-like landscape:


After breakfast and reviewing the crew's objectives for the day, the fun begins with preparations for an Extravehicular Activity (EVA).

"Every time we go out for EVAs, we plan well in advance, the night before, as to where we're going and map out the coordinates," Raghunarayan explained. "We make sure the suits are charged up because if you were actually on Mars and you didn't plan in advance, you would die.”

The goal of EVAs is to gather samples and data, and to explore the landscape of "Mars."

The suits themselves are similar to backpacks with a helmet attached overtop.

There are two different kinds that the crews use, but both are roughly the same with airflow being pumped into the helmet to help with comfort and to simulate what oxygen flow would be like.

The packs weigh about 10-15 pounds and are not the easiest things to maneuver in, as I almost fell a few times while in the suit — but that is similar to what it would really be like (even if Mars has a gravity of only 38% compared to Earth).

The crews wear radio headsets that connect them not only to each other but to the HAB, where another crew member maintains contact, checking at predetermined intervals.

Crew members on the EVAs also wear GPS trackers so that the person who is manning the radios back at base can track their coordinates.

To add to the realism, once everyone is suited up, they enter an airlock where a 5-minute timer marks the time it would take to equalize pressure differences between earth Earth-type atmosphere and a Martian environment.

The rovers, aptly named Curiosity and Opportunity, carry the astronauts to traverse the Martian-like landscape.

For the first EVA that I was involved in as a part of this crew, the goal was collecting rock samples for later study and taking scans from the air. But different EVAs have different purposes to further the crew's scientific goals and research.


As a part of each mission, each crew sets out scientific goals that have to do with a variety of fields and to obtain data that could help a potential mission to Mars.

I had each member of the crew write up a short excerpt of their research to grasp the complexities of what they were trying to accomplish:

Prakruti “Pari” Raghunarayan

"Hello! My name is Prakruti “Pari” Raghunarayan, and I am the Crew Commander. I am a physics and material science & engineering student at University of Texas at Austin where I work on researching and using quantum materials for semiconductors, superconductors, and computing hardware. With MDRS and NASA, we are extending this material study to attempt to bring back rockets we launch. Essentially a larger plan would be using space weather patterns to optimize when we perform launches with Avery and Kristina’s work, mapping that terrain with Rishabh’s research, and finally analyzing and repurposing found materials as energy sources to essentially create rocket fuel (process called electrolysis) which will be a combined effort of what me, Noah, and Aravind do. My specific research will be to exfoliate material we find and see what its composition looks like and how we can categorize terrain material for sustainable space travel!"

Avery Abramson and Kristina Mannix

"My name is Avery I am the Executive Officer and Crew Astronomer of our mission. As the latter, I am conducting a photometric study of the white dwarf star BD-07 3632 with the HSO Officer, Kristina Mannix. We aim to capture and analyze the star’s light curves as it has limited existing data. The star is also fascinating due to its bright magnitude and position in a binary system. Our research will focus on investigating whether the star is pulsating, which could provide valuable insights into its composition. By processing the data we collect with an in-house Python tool and Fourier analyses, we hope to uncover characteristics of BD-07 3632 that have not been previously discovered. This could potentially influence future research and expanding our understanding of white dwarf stars. Kristina and I will also use the Musk Observatory to image the Sun’s surface and monitor space weather in real-time."

Aravind Karthigeyan

"My role in the MDRS crew is the team scientist, and I am specifically monitoring radiation levels throughout the research facility and the habitats. In a real Martian environment, astronauts would be susceptible to various forms of ionizing radiation, especially UV radiation and gamma rays from the Sun. Astronauts would also use energy sources that would involve radioactive components, which would make the danger even higher. My role is to map the various forms of radiation on the surface to maximize safety for astronauts and to research how radiation is distributed through different geographies."

Rishabh Padney

"Hello, my name is Rishabh Pandey and I will be the crew engineer. At MDRS, I will be researching the viability of using photogrammetry to develop detailed topological maps and testing an algorithm to find rescue paths through such maps. Mapping terrain and finding rescue paths are vital for planning EVAs and developing cost effective methods for making such maps is also important. These results can change how scientists can map the surface of Mars in more detail and utilize that information in missions."

Noah Mugan

Behind one of the more unique experiments, especially if you've seen the movie "The Martian," is Noah Mugan. I had him explain his goal of growing radishes in Martian soil, which he actually accomplished quite well.



As my time on Mars was coming to an end, I participated in another EVA with the crew, suiting up and taking a GoPro with me on my journey. This time, the scientific goal was to study the area around the HAB and take readings of the soil and air with a Geiger counter to look at radiation levels.

While the study of the area around you is unique, I found myself just in absolute awe of the landscape around the area. Wearing all the gear and walking along the red dirt really does give you a sense of wonder and for a moment you do have to remind yourself that you are still on Earth with the blue sky as your only reminder.

That, and the occasional Hawaiian shirt-wearing tourist who can't help but stop at the sign marking the station and take a selfie.

“Look, real Martians!” Noah remarked once with a grin as a family jumped out of their car to see the site.

While many are fascinated by the facility, the Mars Society that operates it emphasizes: "People are allowed to pass the campus from Cow Dung Road, and are welcome to stop and park where allowed, and view the station from that spot. Because of the research being conducted here, the main campus is not open to the public, and we ask that our crews’ privacy is respected."

It truly is an amazing place for a facility so steeped in realism and with important scientific goals.

While I get to leave and return home, this crew will wake up tomorrow and do it all over again — with even more crews in each 2-3 week period potentially laying the scientific groundwork for a real mission to Mars.

"We're all very aspirational in terms of our careers and how we want to impact the world," Raghunarayan said.

Mugan added: "We are headed [to Mars], whether it's in the next 20 years or the next 200. I think we'll get there eventually. These types of experiments are very important to gauge what we can or can't do.”

Karthigeyan summed it up best perhaps by saying: "I don't think many people can say that they have done anything similar to this kind of experience. It's truly a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do.”

So, is Utah the new Mars? For the crew at the Mars Desert Research Station, it's certainly the closest we can get right now, and their work brings us one step closer to exploring the Red Planet.

If you want to learn more about the MDRS, the results of each of their goals, and check out the crew's reports click here.