To prepare for a future Mars expedition, a NASA team test-drove a prototype Humvee across the Northwest Passage — weathering an Arctic storm and almost falling through the ice.
The harrowing journey is captured in a new documentary, Passage to Mars.
"While you're going into the unknown you don't know how it's going to end," says Pascal Lee, the director of the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP).
"Will you cause the death of everybody in your team? Will you meet with disaster? Because the next time the sea ice won't just have a little crack but a big crack — you're not totally in control."
Lee says travelling across the treacherous icy terrain on the Northwest Passage was like an astronaut's journey on Mars.
This was the first time that the Northwest Passage was going to be driven in a road vehicle, so the team wanted a visual record of their expedition, says Lee. Plans to record archival video quickly ballooned into a full-fledged documentary.
The resulting feature film opened in late May in Los Angeles and is now available online through iTunes and Amazon.
A treacherous journey, an untested vehicle
The crew's destination was the HMP Research Station, a remote outpost on Devon Island in Baffin Bay — the largest uninhabited island in the world and also referred to as Mars On Earth.
The expedition's goal was to safely deliver the HMP Okarian, a concept pressurized rover being tested for Mars exploration.
The entire journey was accomplished over three seasons, from 2009 to 2011.
"What was on my mind was the awe that Franklin's sailors must have experienced when they saw the power and the unforgivingness of the sea ice," says Lee.
'Falling backwards into the sea'
At one point the vehicle went over a lead — a large fracture in the sea ice covered by snow.
"All of a sudden the vehicle comes to a complete stop. There's no more traction," recounts Lee.
"Next the vehicle started tilting backwards and I saw sky in my windshield. We were falling backwards into the sea, with only the front of the vehicle sitting on the ice."
With some luck the vehicle came to a stop and the crew hurried out of the vehicle and managed to secure it. It was thanks to the know-how of their Inuit field scout, Resolute Bay's Joe Amarualik, that the team had packed steel bars to use as anchors if the ice gave way.
"A simple thing like that saved our expedition," says Lee.
The team also weathered a 48-hour Arctic storm. The experience was akin to being stuck in a dust storm on Mars, Lee says.
The crew arrived in Nunavut's Cambridge Bay, their first destination, with only half a day's fuel left.
"Had we been delayed by weather we would not have made it," says Lee.
With a little help from traditional knowledge
None of this work is done alone, says Lee, adding that his team received incredible support from local Inuit communities who generously shared their traditional knowledge to help navigate their way on ice.
In the end the team broke the record for the longest distance ever travelled on sea ice in a road vehicle.
"It was exciting," says Amarualik who has been assisting the Mars team since 2004.
"I did something that no one has done and helped in part to go explore another planet."
For the past 20 years Nunavut's Devon Island, has been used as proxy for Mars by NASA to test space suits, vehicles and equipment destined for space exploration.
"We are at the eve of travelling to another planet as a species," says Lee.
Devon Island is the ideal place to train future space explorers: the valleys, canyons and gullies all over the desolate island, as well as the ground ice are remarkably Mars-like, says Lee.
"It's bleak, there's no sign of civilization, there's no sign of life — it really takes you to another world."
He says, jokingly, that the first words out of the mouths of the people who land on Mars will likely be: "Oh wow, this looks just like Devon Island."