Space Agencies Track Two Explorers Across Antarctica to Prepare People for Mars

The 80-day mission is testing the limits of the human body in a harsh environment

Two men in winter clothes and skis pull sleds across and frozen landscape
The agencies will monitor Justin Packshaw and Jamie Facer Childs’ health as they trek across the icy continent over the next few months. Chasing the Light

NASA is tracking two explorers on a journey across Antarctica to learn more about the challenges of surviving on Mars.

The pair are three weeks into a coast-to-coast expedition of Antarctica than spans 2,268 miles traveled by foot and skis. As part of a collaboration with NASA, Stanford University, and the European Space Agency, 57-year-old Justin Packshaw and 37-year-old Jamie Facer Childs will record the physical and mental toll of their 80-day trek. Scientists are hopeful that the information the pair gather during their grueling trip will help prepare us for life on the Red Planet. 

“Much like the extreme conditions found on planets in our Solar System, Antarctica has an austere environment that is useful for a range of human and biological research,” the expedition's website states. “Justin and Jamie's mission will allow scientists to observe a rare scientific story of human adaptability, which will ultimately contribute to... human centered space exploration."

During the expedition, which is part of the Chasing the Light mission, the British explorers will endure below-zero temperatures and hundred-mile-an-hour winds. The extreme cold of Antarctica is still milder than the surface of Mars, which averages about minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but can dip to minus 195 degrees near the poles. Packshaw and Childs are on the 33rd day of an 80-day journey, which began in Novolazarevskaya. They are currently making the 1,342-mile journey to the South Pole before traveling the remaining 926 miles past Hercules Inlet to Union Glacier Camp, reports Ben Turner for Live Science. Despite the challenges of the trip, they seem in good spirits.

"The irony is that we're loving it," Childs said to the BBC. "We've been having an adventure and we're savoring every moment."

The pair will receive no physical assistance on their expedition. Instead, they are walking, skiing, and using kites to glide across the frozen continent. They are towing two 440-pound sleds that carry scientific instruments and food, in addition to the samples of their blood, saliva, urine, and feces that they gather throughout the trip. The men are also writing daily updates in a live online blog and wearing smartwatches that record information about their physical health.

Their journey is more than a physical test—each day, the men will gather data about wind speeds, ice conditions, and radiation levels. Because satellites don't orbit directly above the South Pole, the measurements they take will fill in a "satellite data gap" and could provide important insights into climate change, per Live Science.

The expedition will also be a test of human’s ability to estimate distance visually in an unfamiliar environment. On the moon in 1971, astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell decided not to investigate a large crater, thinking it was miles away. Instead, the rim of the crater was only about 50 feet away from the men, according to Gizmodo’s Isaac Schultz.

Packshaw and Childs’ trip was originally planned to be longer, with an additional leg of the journey taking them to the Antarctic's Pole of Inaccessibility—the most remote and difficult-to-reach part of the continent. The route had to be adapted after wind and snow impeded the explorers' travel and caused them to run low on food.

"This continent demands respect and also flexibility as you can rest assured that nothing will go according to plan and you can only hope that you can adapt accordingly and make that decision at the right time," Packshaw wrote on the 27th day of their trek.

The team is currently 554 miles into the mission, which is expected to conclude in February 2022. Those eager to follow the trek can find the explorers' current location and stats including calories burned, stress levels, and heart rate on the mission’s website.

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