HI-SEAS Research Prepares for Space Exploration

18 Apr 2021


Can the lava tubes located inside the Moana Lua volcano in Hawaii help scientists prepare for Mars? Read on to learn more about this new research and what they have discovered.

NASA has identified several possible threats for astronauts during long-term space missions. In order to prepare and avoid these threats, they have initiated a project using lava tubes. Why lava tubes? They believe they represent the closest environment that astronauts would encounter on Mars and the Moon. The HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) is a planetary surface exploration analog site. It is located at approximately 8,500 feet on the Mauna Loa side of the saddle area on the Big Island of Hawaii. According to researcher Dr. Michaela Musilova, the lava tubes present a unique opportunity. For example, on Mars, lava tubes may contain biosignatures. In addition, the lunar lava tubes may serve as sheltered environments for the construction of human settlements. The International MoonBase Alliance (IMA) organizes missions at HI-SEAS.

HI-SEAS Research

Researchers from the University of Hawaii and NASA broke the research mission into six phases. The first phase worked on the problem of an inadequate food supply.

The campaign’s overall objective was to compare the resource costs and the nutritional and psycho-social benefits of two food systems. For example, they compared prepackaged “instant” food and foods prepared by the crew from shelf-stable ingredients. The dietary study tracked crew satisfaction with their diet.  The study tracked crew use of power, water, food, and supplies over the mission. This was a 4-month mission conducted in early 2013.

Missions two, three, and four worked on team cohesion and performance. This mission involved continuous monitoring of face-to-face interactions. They measured emotional states and teamwork behavior. In addition, they studied the effects of isolation using 3D Virtual Reality interactions with the crew’s family and friends. It took four months to complete mission two.  Mission three concluded in eight months. Mission four concluded in twelve months in August of 2016.

Psychological Effects

Typically, people do not interact well after being confined for long periods of time together. Submarine sailors are carefully selected and trained due to the high-risk environment aboard a submarine.

The fifth and sixth missions for the HI-SEAS research team focused on adaptation. They studied poor performance due to inadequate cooperation, coordination, and communication. In addition, they revied psychological adaptation while working as a team.

“We need to identify psychological and psychosocial factors, measures and combinations thereof that can be used to compose highly effective crews. These crews would face autonomous, long duration and/or distance exploration missions.” This campaign was similar to Campaign 2 with two significant changes. First, crew selection itself was studied as part of the development of a model for crew composition. Second, autonomy was varied throughout each mission. For example, low crew operational autonomy in the first and last two months of the mission and high crew autonomy during the middle months of the mission.

“I’ve run almost 30 analog missions there since 2018,” said Musilova. “We have to prepare for everything in as much detail as you can because, in space, so many things can go wrong — even the smallest things can affect the mission and cost someone their life,” she said.


Protective Gear

To simulate a lunar experience, researchers wear special EVA suits to protect them from the elements. The suits are bulky and, at times, limit their field of vision around them. However, they are required to wear them while working in the lava tubes. Each trip into the lava tube lasts about three hours. During that time, they carefully collect samples to study back at the lab.

Crew members that have worked at the HI-SEAS research facility have had a positive experience. They hope their efforts will one day help astronauts explore the Moon or Mars.