Calgary professor part of out-of-this-world Mars simulation in Hawaii

Kent Hecker, a University of Calgary researcher and professor, got to play-out living on Mars for a week, on lava fields in Hawaii.

Experiment studied the brainwaves of pretend astronauts

The team that simulated life on Mars for a week while living in a special habitat tent in Mauna Loa, Hawaii. (Supplied by Kent Hecker)

A spherical white tent stands out against a desolate red-rock landscape.

Five people clad in space suits occupy the foreground.

The scene looks more fantastical than real life, and this unearthly quality is no coincidence. The photo was taken at a NASA-funded research centre in Hawaii that is designed to simulate Mars.

Kent Hecker is a University of Calgary associate professor and researcher who was part of a Canadian research team participating in a study at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation habitat, or HI-SEAS.

"The fun part is, I was the test subject. So I was the pretend astronaut for a week," Hecker told The Homestretch.

The study and research project, which ran Dec. 1-8, took place in Mauna Loa in the red lava fields of an old Hawaiian quarry, believed to mimic the geography on Mars.

The objective of the research? Use "neural headband" technology in the hopes of monitoring the cognitive function of astronauts during a simulated space mission.

Gearing up to leave the habitat tent, Hecker and a graduate student check that their Muse headbands are in order. (Supplied by Kent Hecker)

Hecker said that he, alongside five others, wore headbands called Muse while performing tasks and playing games as "astronaut" test subjects.

The headbands use mobile electroencephalography, EEG, that interprets brainwaves.

The test subjects' cognitive functioning was tracked in real-time on an iPad or iPhone through Bluetooth technology, providing valuable research data that cannot be achieved in a lab, said Hecker.

As part of the simulation, the group lived together in a spherical habitat, where there were sleeping quarters, a common area including a kitchen and prep room, a working room with athletic equipment and a simulated airlock entryway.

"We put ourselves in there as a proof of concept in order to figure out, can we actually use these technologies? And what would living within that habitat actually look like in order to collect meaningful data?" said Hecker.

As part of the simulation, the crew had to look after the habitat's energy source, a solar panel. (Supplied by Kent Hecker)

Using these neural headbands three times a day over a seven-day period, the team was expected to act like a crew would and complete missions.

"We are responsible for looking after the habitat — so, solar energy, powering up the batteries," said Hecker.

"Those did go out, which caused a fair bit of stress because there was no power and no heat at one point in a big tent."

The crew also geared up into space suits went out on walks — which they called extravehicular activities, or EVAs — all while having their brain activity tracked to see whether or not it changed significantly.

What they learned

Hecker described the project's initial findings as exciting.

"[The data is] rough at this time, but we show that there's cognitive decline over the course of the day," said Hecker.

"Brain performance decreases, and that could have significant impact in terms of decision-making."

Hecker sits in a lava tube as he tests the Muse headband that monitors brainwaves. (Supplied by Kent Hecker)

There was also a slight decline in brain performance over a week's time, which is not unexpected, said Hecker.

This information could go on to inform how a space mission is planned out, determining when brain-demanding activities should take place on a mission, he said.

"We will hopefully be able to use this as one more piece of the puzzle," he said.

There are preliminary plans to replicate this study in a six-month model to get more in-depth data on performance variables, noted Hecker.

As an associate professor for veterinary medicine with a joint appointment in community health sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine, Hecker said he sees future opportunities for using this monitoring technology closer to home. He said it could be used to observe students as they learn surgical techniques and make decisions in what can be stressful environments.

"If we truly believe that learning is a change in brain activity, then we should be potentially looking at changes in brain activity as people learn," said Hecker.

With files from The Homestretch


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