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Tech for Mars colony finds applications in Alaska

Posted: April 6, 2013 - 11:07pm

JUNEAU — A winter in an Arctic village is not for the weary.

Northern Alaska is subject to some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Negative 40 degree weather isn’t uncommon, and strong winds make it even more dangerous to go outside. The winter darkness can enhance feelings of isolation, but the summer sun is almost as unforgiving — at one point it doesn’t set for about 80 days.

While most would shy away from these conditions, NASA’s Ames research center sees Alaska’s Arctic locale as fertile ground for testing technologies that would be needed to establish a self-sustainable colony in space.

Over the last 20 years, NASA has developed a symbiotic relationship with Alaska’s villages, public sector and scientific community, by which Alaskans can implement useful technologies while giving researchers the chance to run some preliminary testing.

“There are lots of appropriate places for us to really look at how these systems work in the environments that they’ll be in and it would be relevant to our future NASA missions,” says Dr. David Bubenheim, a senior research scientist at NASA Ames. “People get to use it and benefit from it, but it’s valuable to us just being able to collect some performance data on the systems.”

Supplying energy to these rural communities is one of the more daunting obstacles that Alaska’s desolate villages— or a space station on a remote planet — must overcome.

While NASA may have delayed their mission to build their Mars colony, the wind turbines that were created for the project — which bore out of a partnership between the National Science Foundation, NASA Ames, and the Department of Energy — were eventually tweaked so they could be used in the Arctic.

One of the first turbines was erected in Kotzebue, a small town on Alaska’s northwest coast, in 2002. The machines have since been commercialized, and similar turbines have sprung up throughout the circumpolar north.

But these technologies aren’t just plug-and play. NASA created them to work in the final frontier, not the Last Frontier.

To reconfigure them to fit Alaska’s needs takes time, money and a partner that understands the community — a role which has partially been filled by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

“It’s the land grant system that allows us to use technologies such as those that NASA has developed to bring science into rural areas, isolated communities where food is scarce to improve the lives of people,” says Dr. Carol Lewis, the former dean of the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks

But funding cuts — many of which were brought on by the recession — have stopped commercialization and development in their tracks. That’s a process that takes decades even when there are adequate resources available, according to Dr. Andy Soria, professor of wood chemistry and applied environmental science and technology at UAF

Moving a product from the lab to a village takes an enormous amount of effort.

“Science — now more than ever — crawls,” Soria says. “(It) takes time and it takes resources. And neither of those seems to be widely available.”

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