Pascal Lee NASA Mars Researcher

Pascal Lee of NASA's Mars Institute and his team will be testing a new vehicle system on Devon Island. (CBC )

A team of NASA scientists is returning to Nunavut to test new equipment it hopes one day will be used to explore Mars.

California-based scientist Pascal Lee heads up NASA's Mars Institute. This summer he and a team will be testing a robotic drill in Haughton Crater. Just 25 degrees below the North Pole, it's the site of a huge meteorite impact on Devon Island.

The uninhabited island, located east of Resolute and south of Grise Fiord, is a rocky polar desert marked by an ancient rock impact – a terrain similar to that of the red planet.

Lee says the island is like a living laboratory. Like Mars, the High Arctic is perpetually cold and exposed to the elements. Lee says this makes it the ideal environmental to start looking to see how microscopic life forms might survive the elements by living underground.

"The surface of Mars is very hostile. there's ultraviolet light, cosmic rays. Nothing seems to be able to live at the surface of Mars. We don't even see fossils. But we think the picture's very different if you go deeper down. So drilling might be the secret to accessing the parts of Mars that are better hosts for life," says Lee.

Lee's team is also testing a new vehicle system, which will see astronauts driving two separate rovers in tandem. It's trying to work out the best way for Mars's future explorers to drive on the planet.

Pairing up vehicles seems to owe a little something to Inuit traditional knowledge. In an inhospitable land, where anything can go wrong, working together is essential to survival.

"This is why you don't go out on the land alone. And same thing on Mars."

NASA still has ambitious plans for exploring our solar system's fourth planet despite budget cuts. In addition to uncrewed missions, the American agency is laying the groundwork for humans setting foot on the planet.