Devon Island Is as Close to Mars as You May Get

The 2009 Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station pose on Devon Island after deploying the TEM47-PROTEM low frequency electromagnetic survey equipment on Haynes Ridge. Jpalaia/Wikimedia Commons

The largest uninhabited island in the world is a cold, empty, bleak place. It's a perfect spot, perhaps, if you're a muskox. Or hellbent on getting to Mars.

Otherwise, Devon Island, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago west of Greenland, remains uninhabited for a reason. It is a barren 21,000-plus square miles of rock and ice that is so unsuitable for living that the indigenous people of the island, the Inuit, left there for good in the 1930s. By the 1950s, Devon was completely abandoned.

Now, it serves as a stop-by for all sorts of big dreamers and big thinkers who take samples of its mostly lifeless surface, run simulations, conduct tests and trudge around the 14-mile wide, 39 million-year-old Haughton impact crater on so-called "Mars walks" — all in preparation, they hope, for something much bigger to come.

So if you know the difference between Kirk and Picard, if you go to bed with visions of the Red Planet in your head, if you can't wait for Matt Damon in "The Martian" (coming in October!), have we got a place for you.

Mars on Earth

Devon Island's patterned grooves bare a passing resemblance to Mars's surface
Devon Island's patterned grooves bare a passing resemblance to Mars's surface. Anthonares/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists call Devon Island a Mars "analog," which in layman's terms is a place that is as close as we're going to get to Mars.

Sure, the air quality is a little better in northern Canada than it is on the fourth planet from the sun, mainly because there is air to breathe.

On Mars, there's less gravity, too. It's colder — much, much colder — and dustier. A year lasts almost 700 days there. Those muskox and the occasional polar bear you run into on Devon Island? You won't find those on Mars, either. (That we know of.)

But Mars is 140 million miles away. You kind of have to take what you can get.

"The surface of Devon Island has been carved by a multitude of small valley networks that bear an uncanny resemblance, including in their bizarreness, to the many small valley networks on Mars," Pascal Lee of the SETI Institute, wrote in Ad Astra, the magazine of the National Space Society. "There are many other features on Devon Island with eerily similar counterparts on Mars, including vast canyons and small gullies. In the end, it is perhaps not any single parallel that should impress, but the convergence of so many in a single small area of our planet."

The Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station in 2009
The Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station is a simulated Mars habitat that was erected on Devon Island in 2000. Brian Shiro/Wikimedia Commons

Since 2000, The Mars Society — an international nonprofit promoting the exploration and settlement of Mars — has run a research station on Devon called the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS), a two-floor "pod" that was designed to fit inside a rocket. Another station on Devon is the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP), which is partially funded by NASA. It’s been there since 1997.

To be sure, Devon Island is not the only place that is being used in Mars simulations. The Mars Society also has an outpost in the high desert of Utah. The society’s branch in Mexico announced in May that it will build a research station in the mountain desert region near Perote in the southeastern state of Veracruz. Mars Society-Australia is looking into sites Down Under, and a chapter in Europe is planning one somewhere in Europe.

But the polar desert of Devon Island is in the forefront of the science. If man really is going to Mars, the trip may begin right there.

What’s next

In mid-August, NASA tested its latest super-engine, the RS-25, designed for the Space Launch System Rocket on the Orion spacecraft. That same week, The Mars Society held its 18th annual international convention, at Catholic University of American in Washington, D.C. There, a spirited debate was had between a team from MIT and the controversial Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, who founded Mars One in 2011 with the idea of colonizing the planet.

Other speakers touched on subjects ranging from robotics and the feasibility of colonizing Mars, to construction methods on Mars, to so-called "Marsonauts." One talk was scheduled on the "Ethical Implications of Pregnancy on Mars."

Back on Earth, The Mars Society is planning the second phase of Mars Arctic 365, which plans to put a team of researchers in the FMARS on Devon Island for a year.

Robert Zubrin is a former engineer at Lockheed Martin, the founder of The Mars Society and co-author of, "The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must." He became frustrated when NASA put a nearly $500 billion price tag on going to Mars, back in 1990, and has been working on getting there, cheaper, ever since.

He's convinced it can be done. And he's convinced it must be done. On Aug. 13, he stood in front of the convention in Washington, D.C., to update attendees on what’s happening on Devon Island and elsewhere. A banner behind him read, "Humans to Mars In A Decade."

"People will go to Mars for many of the same reasons they went to colonial America: because they want to make a mark, or to make a new start, or because they are members of groups who are persecuted on Earth, or because they are members of groups who want to create a society according to their own principles," Zubrin wrote in Ad Astra in 1996. "Many kinds of people will go, with many kinds of skills, but all who go will be people who are willing to take a chance to do something important with their lives. Out of such people are great projects made and great causes won."