Cummins engineer’s holiday is out of this world
Cummins Engineer Shefali Rana spent the holidays in Utah, not to ski or hike, but rather to work in the desert, living in extremely tight quarters and eating mostly freeze-dried food. And she couldn’t be more excited about it.
That’s because she went to the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) to study life on the red planet, or at least as close as you can get to it on Earth.
“I’m very interested in space and this may be my best chance to study and simulate the life and work of an astronaut for future manned expeditions in a Mars analog and to study the challenges associated with it,” said Rana, who was part of a six-person team made up of Purdue University students, alumni and faculty visiting the MDRS for a two-week stint.
The Mars Society describes itself as “the world’s largest and most influential space advocacy organization” dedicated to the exploration of Mars. It created the research station some 18 years ago to enable visitors to experience what life might be like on Mars, and to conduct research that might be helpful should mankind traverse the 140 million or so miles to the planet.
The society maintains the Utah desert resembles Mars, from the barren landscape to the isolation researchers experience at the six-building compound, which seemingly rises out of the middle of nowhere.
LIFE AT THE STATION
Groups at the station, roughly four hours south of Salt Lake City, Utah, must follow a rigorous protocol, only venturing outside in space suits modeling what would be needed to protect them from Mars’ harsh environment. Mars has an average temperature of about minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 degrees Celsius), one-third the gravity of earth and the Mars solar day, referred to as sol, is 24 hours 39 minutes long.
Most of the compound’s buildings, which include a science dome and solar observatory, are connected by covered walkways simulating the enclosed tunnels that would be necessary if teams really made the five- to 10-month trip to Mars.
Rana, a New Product Reliability Engineer in Cummins Emission Solutions, was part of a team sponsored by the Purdue chapter of the Mars Society and the university’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She said she has always been interested in space, which was heightened after the space program in her native India began pursuing the landing of an unmanned spacecraft on the moon.
The Purdue team conducted a wide range of research, including a study of clay soils similar to those found on Mars, using radar to evaluate properties of the bedrock layers, the decision-making processes of astronauts when not in contact with the research station and the impact of environmental factors on the performance of astronauts.
Purdue’s Mars program strives to get a mix of students, including men and women as well as undergrads and post-grads. Dr. Cesare Guariniello, a research scientist in the School of Mechanical Engineering, made his third trip to the MDRS and served as commander of the mission.
In addition to keeping the team on task while maintaining protocols, he saw his role as helping team members adjust to working in a small space and adjusting to the isolation.
“I know for me, the isolation is the biggest adjustment, and you don’t fully appreciate it until the work is over and you return home,” he said. “Just passing through the closest small towns feels like there are so many people.”
A heavy snow kept the team close to the research station for the first few days of the group's visit. Snow has been detected in Mars' upper atmosphere, but it would vaporize before ever reaching the planet's surface.
The snow at the research station perhaps detracted from any visual comparisons to the red planet, but it did likely make for a more authentic experience in at least one respect. Human visitors to Mars would likely stay close to home given the extreme temperatures, violent dust storms, radiation and other deadly hazards.
A SHARED DREAM
Both Rana and Dr. Guariniello, a native of Italy, would love the chance to travel into space someday and they hope this experience might help make their case a little stronger should they ever get close. But they know opportunities are extremely limited and the odds are against them.
“If the opportunity presented itself, I would gladly go,” Rana said. “I hope our work adds to the body of knowledge for sustainable exploration as we celebrate 50 years of Apollo 11 and prepare for the Artemis and Gaganyaan missions.”
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first men to land on the moon in 1969 as part of Apollo 11. NASA’s Artemis mission is scheduled to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. Gaganyaan is the manned space mission planned by India’s space program in 2021.