Tunnels on Mars Might Protect Astronauts From Dangerous Levels of Radiation

Researchers working in the Utah desert experiment with methods for determining if Martian rock formations are suitable for tunneling.

One possible solution may be moving work on Mars underground. While tunneling on the planet presents its own challenges — scientists still have much to learn about the planet’s soil — a subterranean habitat would be better protected from the harsh radiation above.

But first, researchers must determine out how to assess the planet’s rocks and decide which ones are suitable for tunneling based on the density of rock formations, for example. Lt. Heidi Beemer led a multi-crew project at the Mars Desert Research Station, a Mars Society facility that allows crews, mostly made up of university students and researchers, to stay in the remote Utah desert for two weeks at a time and simulate working on Mars. Like the Red Planet, the research station is a dry and isolated area — even the rocks look red due to its soil type. That makes it an ideal location for researchers to conduct experiments that could prepare future astronauts for work on Mars.

"One of the major issues about MDRS is all of the crews come with research, work for two weeks, and leave," Beemer said.

The lack of longitudinal studies that extend across different crews means that it's difficult to generalize experimental results. A typical International Space Station study, for example, is comprised of only a few astronauts. But 10 astronauts participating in a study isn’t considered a statistically representative group from which to make broad conclusions about a large population group.

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Beemer herself is no stranger to Mars research. She applied to be part of the Mars One crew, looking to join a non-profit organization that one day plans to send people on a one-way trip to the Red Planet. When Beemer didn't make the cut of 100 astronauts, she focused her attention on working with the Mars Society, the nonprofit group that operates the Utah facility.

Beemer's work on the project began with a two-week-long visit in 2011, when she tested procedures for assessing Martian rocks. She had no immediate plans to expand the research, but that changed when she began a master’s degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida and returned to MDRS in 2014. She later presented her preliminary research findings at a Mars Society conference and forged relationships with senior officials to expand her research to other teams.

Each of the teams involved in the tunneling research were tasked to go to multiple sites within a short distance of the MDRS habitat and evaluate the rocks as suitable — or not — for tunneling.

"They looked at things like the characteristics of the rock layer, the stability of the layer, any interruptions in the rock or other intrusions, or the moisture that is present in the area," Beemer said. The crews also used simple tools that astronauts could easily bring on a mission, such as a rock hammer or a geological compass. However, crew members didn't bring a drill because it's a complex tool – real astronauts would most likely have access to that, she added.

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The results, published in the journal Acta Astronautica, describe how crew members were able to evaluate rocks onsite and determine whether or not tunneling was possible.

Beemer, however, acknowledged that a lot more work is required to establish criteria for tunneling on Mars, including what kind of equipment is required. Luckily, with the advent of 3D printing, crew members may be able to build what they need on Mars. And with advances in robotics, much of the work could be done by artificially intelligent systems even before crews arrive on the planet.

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