Technology & Science·Blog

Fire at Mars test habitat shows dangers of manned mission

A fire at a simulated Mars habitat, located in the Utah desert, demonstates the dangers that a manned mission to the Red Planet might face.

Fire at Mars habitat mockup shows dangers of red planet trip

The Mars Society runs this Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, simulating the living conditions that would be faced by a manned mission to the red planet.

Members of the Mars Society are repairing damage from a recent fire in a greenhouse that destroyed part of a simulated Mars habitat located in the Utah desert. The incident was a harsh reminder that surviving on Mars means no help from home.

The fire was caused by a heater placed too close to wooden shelves, and it took the four crew members half an hour to fight the flames. In the process, they used up all of their available fire extinguishers, and some of their limited water supply.

They also called 911, so firefighters from a nearby town could make sure the fire was truly extinguished.  

After assessing the damage, the crew members decided to abandon the habitat and spend the next few nights in a local hotel.

While no one was hurt, it underlined the fact that had this event happened on Mars, the consequences could have been much more severe. There would have been no one to call for help and nowhere else to go.  

This 2014 self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows how inhospitable the planet's surface is. (NASA/ JPL-Caltech/MSSS/AP)

The Mars Desert Research Station, along with another similar outpost on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, are full simulations where scientists, students and engineers spend weeks living in a two-level habitat, conducting experiments in environments here on Earth that most closely resemble those on Mars. They must wear space suits every time they go outside, have limited connection with the outside world, and must survive on limited resources.

But no matter how realistic the simulation is, help is never too far away if something goes seriously wrong.

Future Mars colonists will not have that luxury. They will be homesteaders, surviving off the land entirely on their own.

With a travel time between Earth and Mars of at least seven months - even longer if the planets are on opposite sides of the Sun - there is no chance for emergency help to arrive quickly. Any problems, no matter how serious, will have to be dealt with on the spot.  

So let’s take this same fire incident to Mars. As soon as the fire breaks out, it begins to consume precious oxygen. If the fire becomes large enough to breach the walls, as this one did, all the breathable air in the greenhouse would be lost to the outside.

Members of a Mars Desert Research Station mission work in the Utah desert. (MDRS/Flickr)

Interestingly, that would also douse the fire, because the atmosphere outside on Mars is carbon dioxide, a natural fire extinguisher. But replacing the lost air and water used to fight the fire would take some time, because both have to be manufactured on Mars, partly by melting ice and getting oxygen out of water.

The greenhouse is also a source of fresh food, so the colonists would be relying on a limited store of canned and packaged goods for weeks or months until the crops return.

If someone was injured while fighting the fire, they would need proper medical treatment for burns, smoke inhalation or broken bones.

In the worst case scenario, if the fire cannot be controlled and spreads to the rest of the habitat, destroying the entire structure … well, that’s it. The crew must don their spacesuits, stand outside in the cold Martian desert and wait to die in less than 12 hours, when the air supply in their suits runs out.

Imagine the public response to watching astronauts die on another world. The Challenger disaster is a stark reminder of what that response would be like - this week marks the 29th anniversary of the day the world watched in horror as seven lives were extinguished when the space shuttle exploded shortly after launch.

This is not to say that humans should not explore other worlds. But this incident is a chilling reminder that when we go there, we must go prepared.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.