5 Challenges Scientists Working on Mars Will Face


As space agencies begin planning for the future missions that will take human explorers to Mars, volunteer researchers are testing out what working in deep-space conditions will be like by living in a tiny dome on a remote volcano in Hawaii. The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, is in its fourth iteration.

Astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux recently shared details of his experience as one of six researchers in HI-SEAS IV for a year on his blog, and his tale makes the idea of being a pioneering outer space scientist sound way harder than it looks in the movies. Here are five things we learned about what working on Mars might be like in the future.


The HI-SEAS habitat in Hawaii. Image Credit: Cyprien Verseux

One day, Verseux broke a flask in his lab. “A cheap flask, easily replaceable, that I would have quickly forgotten about under normal conditions,” he writes. “As I have not seen a shop in the past eight months, and the dome has no postal address, I will have to go without it. Without this flask, precious after all, that was part of the limited supplies we have here. Researchers on Mars will have to face constraints which are unusual to a typical western laboratory.”


Resources are predictably scarce in space, and it’s not just water that’s limited. Most of the dome’s energy supply comes from solar panels, as it might on Mars, but they don’t always perform as expected. “In practice, our power generation is quite unpredictable: we don’t face dust storms as we would have on Mars, but we do get clouds,” Verseux writes. “I often have to postpone experiments because we lack the power for running the centrifuge or the autoclave.”


“How do you feel after spending an entire weekend at home, without going outside even once?” Verseux asks. “Imagine spending months there. Because of the lack of open air and the monotony, we sometimes have to fight a tendency to slow down.”


If The Martian taught us anything, it’s that improvisational skills are key in space. But even conducting basic scientific work far from Earth-bound labs requires clever workarounds. Just because you carefully plan and budget for your project doesn’t mean that everything goes as planned, Verseux cautions. “You used more tubes than expected because you had forgotten a control, you spilled a bottle of reagent, a colleague broke your glassware when dancing to the sound of his MP3 player,” he lists among the potential pratfalls of the lab. Under normal circumstances, these issues could be easily remedied, but far from any postal service, they become bigger barriers. If it wasn’t on the initial list of necessities, you won’t be getting it delivered to Mars.


“Our internet access is limited to a few websites necessary to our work,” he describes. The researchers have to email the Mission Support Crew to access most documents and information that could easily be Googled at home. “Getting information that we could find in less than 15 minutes ‘on Earth’ can take days here, especially given that our emails have a 20-minute delay in both directions to simulate the 4-to-24-minute delay necessary for Earth–Mars communications.”

[h/t ResearchGate]

NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.


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