For most, the idea of stepping foot on another planet is a dream set in some far-off future or sci-fi novel. But a landscape similar to the untouched and barren grounds of Mars is closer than one might think.
Dipping as low as minus 50 degrees in winter and 10 degrees during the—albeit short—summers, the world’s most isolated island has zero inhabitants. After two days and seven flights, visitors are met by mostly unmapped and rubbly terrain, alongside canyons, valleys, and a crater, 20 kilometres across and millions of years old.
“If you want to describe Devon Island, you’d say it’s a cold, dry, barren, desolate, rocky, wind-swept, UV-drenched… landscape and scarred by craters,” says Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist. “And that’s exactly how you would describe Mars.”
Lee has spent the last 25 summers on Nunavut’s Devon Island, studying its similarities to other planets.
“The Arctic is such an extreme place on Earth,” he says. “Devon Island is so similar to Mars in so many ways, we call it ‘Mars on Earth.’ We’re trying to figure out why and how best to explore Mars in the future.”
Lee says scientists look at the similarities between the island and other planets and what that could mean for finding life in space. So the fact that scientists discovered Devon Island has some life hidden away offers a clue.
“There is actually life, but it has receded into the last resort it can survive in, inside rocks in the form of microbes,” Lee explains. “On Mars, we don’t see plants, but now we realize we may have to dig deeper, go into caves, dig into the ground and extract samples to see if life might be hiding underground.”
The island is also a place to test vehicles and other types of technology to understand what life in extreme environments is like.
“The practical side of doing work in those temperatures is when it starts getting really cold, nothing wants to work and things break that shouldn’t break,” says fellow High Arctic researcher Wayne Pollard.
In other words, it’s a chance to test those boundaries.
But it’s not just an analog for Mars. NASA is planning on returning to the Moon and the space agency has taken an interest in an impact crater on Devon Island that’s of similar size to one near the South Pole of the Moon.
“It’s interesting because the far North has always been a… land of exploration,” says Lee. “And sure enough, it continues to be for the space flight era.”