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NASA scales back Nunavut operations on Devon Island

After years of sending dozens to researchers to Nunavut's Devon Island, U.S. space agency NASA will only be sending a skeleton crew to Nunavut this summer, according to the head of the Mars Institute. NASA has previously used Devon Island to conduct research and prepare for Mars missions.

U.S. space agency has used the territory as a testing ground for interplanetary missions in past

Dundas Harbour, on Devon Island. The Mars Institute has scaled their operations back on Devon Island, after sending over 100 researchers there in past years.

After years of sending dozens to researchers to Nunavut's Devon Island, U.S. space agency NASA will only be sending a skeleton crew to Nunavut this summer, according to the head of the Mars Institute.

"[It] will be a very small party (5 people) for just a few days," Mars Institute chair Pascal Lee said in an email to CBC. Lee added that this year's operation will be mainly about sorting out logistics on the project, and many of the details have yet to be worked out.

Normally, about 100 researchers participate in the annual field season for the Haughton Mars Project, the ongoing exploration of a crater on Devon Island which resembles Martian terrain.

The Colorado-based Mars Society, which has also used Devon Island in the past, will not be returning to Nunavut this summer. Instead, they will be using a site in Utah near the community of Hanksville, about a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City.

Nunavut research yields revealing results

A recent announcement from the Mars Institute highlighted information collected from the Devon Island site in 2009, using it to prove that its off-world exploration activities would probably not contaminate Martian soil.

According to a news release, tests on samples from a 2009 Humvee trip from Kugluktuk to Cambridge Bay show the vehicle did not contaminate the terrain it crossed. Researchers took swabs from both inside and outside the vehicle, testing to see whether microbes from humans would make their way out of the vehicle and contaminate soil samples. These swabs were then shipped, frozen, from Nunavut to a lab at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre.

The Mars Institute has been working on Devon Island every summer since 1997, testing vehicles and equipment, as well as a robot used for remote exploration. Between 2009 and 2011, project scientists also drove a specially adapted Humvee — named the HMP Okarian — for 750 kilometres from the mainland to the research base on Devon Island.

Europa Mission — A Nunavut Connection

Last Wednesday, NASA announced its mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, was one step closer to reality. Europa is widely thought to be the most likely place in the solar system to find extraterrestrial life — even more than Mars.

Though the Europa mission won't involve landing on the icy moon, two areas of Nunavut might figure in the agency's research. Axel Heiberg Island's hot springs, and a yellow glacier on Ellesmere Island. Microbe samples from both sites are being studied by the agency to see how life survives and thrives in extreme climates.

Robert Pappalardo of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says there are no concrete plans yet to return to Nunavut for the Europa project. There is, however, a possibility of testing some radar equipment in the territory in the near future.

NASA aims to launch its Europa Clipper in the 2020s.

With files from the Associated Press

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