Analogue Research Stations¬†are laboratories for learning how to live and work on another planet. Each is a prototype of a habitat that will land humans on Mars and serve as their main base for months of exploration in the harsh Martian environment. Such a habitat represents a key element in current human Mars mission planing. Each Station’s centerpiece is a cylindrical habitat, “The Hab,” an 8-meter diameter, two-deck structure mounted on landing struts. Peripheral external structures, some inflatable, may be appended to the Hab as well.

Each station serves as a field base to teams of four to six crew members: geologists, astrobiologists, engineers, mechanics, physicians and others, who live for weeks to months at a time in relative isolation in a Mars analog environment. Mars analogues can be defined as locations on Earth where some environmental conditions, geologic features, biological attributes or combinations thereof may approximate in some specific way those thought to be encountered on Mars, either at present or earlier in that planet’s history. Studying such sites leads to new insights into the nature and evolution of Mars, the Earth, and life.

In addition to providing scientific insight into our neighboring world, such analogue environments offer unprecedented opportunities to carry out Mars analog field research in a variety of key scientific and engineering disciplines that will help prepare humans for the exploration of that planet. Such research is vitally necessary. For example, it is one thing to walk around a factory test area in a new spacesuit prototype and show that a wearer can pick up a wrench – it is entirely another to subject that same suit to two months of real field work. Similarly, psychological studies of human factors issues, including isolation and habitat architecture are also only useful if the crew being studied is attempting to do real work.

When considering the effectiveness of a human mission to Mars as a whole, it is clear that there is an operations design problem of considerable complexity to be solved. Such a mission will involve diverse players with different capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. They will include the crew of the Mars habitat, pedestrian astronauts outside, astronauts on unpressurized but highly nimble light vehicles operating at moderate distances from the habitat, astronauts operating a great distances from the habitat using clumsy but long-endurance vehicles such as pressurized rovers, mission support on Earth, the terrestrial scientific community at large, robots, and others. Taking these different assets and making them work in symphony to achieve the maximum possible exploration effect will require developing an art of combined operations for Mars missions. The Mars Society’s analogue research stations will begin the critical task of developing this art.