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Trip Across Canada's Arctic Mimics Mars Visit

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A bid to drive 1,000 miles across the sea ice of Canada's High Arctic may teach scientists more about how to explore Mars. A team hopes to set out in a few weeks. Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist and chairman of the Mars Institute, talks about the mission.


What can the Northwest Passage and Canada's High Arctic teach us about exploration on Mars? Well, that's a question that a team of scientists hopes to answer. They'll be driving a bright yellow Humvee Rover 1,000 miles across sea ice. If they make it, it'll be the first time the Northwest Passage has been traveled in a road vehicle.

The team hopes to set out in a few weeks and Pascal Lee will be leading the expedition. He's a planetary scientist and chairman of the Mars Institute, which promotes the study and exploration of Mars. Welcome to the program.

Dr. PASCAL LEE (Chairman, Mars Institute): Hello. Good to be here.

BLOCK: I've looked at the map. You're going to be heading west to east across the northernmost part of Canada. How are you going to make this trip? What's involved?

Dr. LEE: We're driving a Humvee with two people on board. Ahead of the Humvee, we'll have a third team member on a snowmobile scouting out for cracks and thin ice ahead of us. Trailing us, as well, we'll have a fourth team member riding another snowmobile with our emergency supplies.

BLOCK: And what do you do about gas, fueling up this Humvee?

Dr. LEE: We'll carry the fuel that we need to go from one small community in the north to the next. Each is separated by a distance of about 400 to 500 kilometers, so we hope to refuel as we reach these communities and then move on and make our way to our research station on Devon Island.

BLOCK: And what are the main risks that you're most worried about?

Dr. LEE: Of course the ice being thin or…

BLOCK: That's a problem, yeah.

Dr. LEE: …the ice even being just jumbled and very rough to traverse. Of course we're also in the Arctic wilderness there, so the polar bear is at the top of the food chain.

BLOCK: Well, what's the point here, Dr. Lee? Why bother to go 1,000 miles in a Humvee across the Northwest Passage?

Dr. LEE: The opportunity is really to get our second Humvee, which this is, to Devon Island. Because once it's there, we will be able to learn how to plan and implement these long-range, simulated, pressurized rover traverses that will help us simulate how we will explore the moon and eventually Mars over long distances and over long periods of time.

And then in addition, of course, we'll be conducting actual field science during our traverse. And in this case, we'll be focusing on measuring the thickness of sea ice over the entire length of the Northwest Passage.

BLOCK: You know, there does seem to be something odd about the notion that you'd be trying to study the thickness of sea ice, the impact of climate change from a, you know, a six-ton Humvee that you're driving across pristine wilderness. I mean, that just seems to be at odds with itself.

Dr. LEE: There is some irony there. But when you think about it, you realize that, first of all, the actual carbon footprint of our traverse will be very small. And meanwhile, the importance of the measurement that we're making will really be substantial. In other words, the benefits of the mission to study the Earth, understand our impact and therefore reduce it with programs that act on global scales will far outweigh the particular impact that our Humvee will have in the Arctic itself.

BLOCK: In the end, I mean you're a proponent of exploration of Mars in particular. I mean, what is your dream of what might result from this yellow Humvee coming across the Northwest Passage to Devon Island up there?

Dr. LEE: Well, my personal interest, of course, is to make sure that in the future we do continue to explore the moon and Mars, and do so in ways that allow us to be very effective. And therefore, we have to prepare these future explorations well here on earth, first. But, as well, it's very important that in the process, we do whatever we can to help understand our own planet better.

And so, to me, this particular expedition has this wonderful attribute of being both forward-looking in terms of paving the way to the exploration of the moon and Mars in the future, but more importantly, to be addressing, really, an important concern of ours today, which is the warming of our planet and the impact of climate change, especially in the arctic.

BLOCK: Well, Dr. Lee, good luck with the expedition.

Dr. LEE: Thanks very much.

BLOCK: Pascal Lee is the co-founder of the Mars Institute. He'll be leading an expedition to drive the Northwest Passage on sea ice this spring.

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