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Exclusive – expert claims the demon hell pit on Mars is just “marketing”

The latest installment of the Mars based Doom series is nearly upon us. But a Mars expert claims the depiction of the red planet as a portal to the underworld is a grossly exaggerated one. José Barbosa presents this explosive and challenging interview.

Admittedly the original Doom took place on the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, but in Doom 3 we finally made the surface of the planet. Since those very first games, Doom  has lived or died on its obsessive adherence to realism and detail: it’s essentially a Mars simulator. But is the famous Doom verisimilitude 100 percent pure?  Rumor is they’ve fudged quite a lot of details.

Jon Clarke is a geological general practitioner and the president of the Mars Society of Australia. He has been involved in developing exploration strategies for human missions to Mars through the Mars 160 analog mission. It’s a 7 person crew spending 80 days in the Utah desert and northern Canada simulating the conditions on the red planet. The man knows a lot about Mars. And what he knows is shocking.

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Jon Clarke, Mars expert

What exactly are the chances demons from hell could invade Mars?

Somewhere between small and non-existent.

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Really? That’s not what we’ve been led to believe, Jon.

Well that’s just a clever marketing ploy by the people that pay my bill. The thing is, this is a fantasy world and the rules of fantasy are different. I think in a videogame you take a premise and run with it. So long as it works within the rules of the game, the rules of the premise, I think that’s fine. I’m quite taken with the idea of a videogame which demon spawn from the depths of the deepest pit are sort of spewed out onto the surface of Mars and the poor bloody infantry have to go and sort it out as they usually do.

So to be absolutely clear, you’re saying there’s no chance of floating, horned beast things on Mars?

Sadly, no.

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What would it be like trying to walk on the surface of Mars?

People have done tests. What they’ve discovered is that the most effective way of walking around on Mars is to actually run. But you run at the speed in which you walk on Earth. So it would look very odd. People running in slow motion on Mars to get from A to B. The other thing, of course, is that although your weight is a lot less, your mass is the same. So say your mass is 75 kilos and on Earth you weight 75 kilos. On the moon you’d weigh less than 13 kilos and on Mars you’d weigh about 30 kilos. So getting used to that disconnect between what your actual mass and actual weight is takes a little getting used to. You see the videos of the Apollo astronauts, they’re always falling over and that’s partly because they’ve got their own mass plus 120 kilos of space to contend with but they only weigh 30 or 40 kilos all up. So very, very odd situation. It’s the same on Mars. 

I just thought they were drunk.

No, no, no, no. No alcohol on Apollo.

That’s unfortunate.

They’re having a good time as well.

It seems like Mars is the one planet that we’re constantly sending stuff to. Why is that? Is it purely just the distance?

First of all it is relatively close to Earth. Obviously the moon is a lot closer so the moon’s had more space missions there and people. Venus is a very inhospitable planet. The temperature on Venus is about 500 degrees. The pressure is about the same as a kilometre under the ocean. So yeah, it is not a bad approximation of hell in terms of cell survival. Mars, in many ways, is a much more hospitable planet. People will be able to walk around there wearing spacesuits. We can see the surface from the Earth through our telescopes which is why, historically, there’s been so much interest in Mars. We can imagine it as a place we can visit and have adventures or creatures like us could live there and come have adventures here. That’s why Mars is so interesting. 

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Is there actually anything alive on Mars, as far as we know? Or is it a completely dead planet?

It’s geologically active. So there are huge volcanoes on Mars. 400km across, 12-15km high. And these have erupted for hundreds of millions of years and the most recent eruptions on most of these were only a million or so years ago. So they’re still within a current interval of those eruptions which, being a New Zealander, you would understand quite well. Something could pop off in Auckland at any time.

I try not to think about it, Jon. As far as going there, you’re involved with the Mars 160 analog mission. As far as I can tell that is about basically working out the best way to go about exploring Mars, is that right?

Very much so. Going to Mars is something we’re pretty good at with unmanned spacecrafts and sending people there is very similar activity, just scaled up appropriately. But when we send people to Mars they’ll probably be on the surface for 18 months. 540 days. We’ve never done anything like that before on the moon. How we go about exploring the surface of Mars for an extended period of time, or the moon for that matter, is something we need to develop. The Mars 160 expedition is designed to do that.

So there’s two stations very similar in design, one in Utah and one up in Devon Island in the Canadian arctic. The same crew will be working these two different environments doing similar sort of stuff, as similar as possible given the fact that they’re in different micro-environments with different geology, and then we’ll draw lessons from that which we can publish up and have available for people of planned actual Mars missions. That process has already started. 

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When you go there as a geologist, what will be your role?

I’ll be doing normal geological work but I’ll be wearing a simulated spacesuit. So I’ll be taking samples for analysis for their mineralogy, for their chemistry. I will be taking readings in the field, I’ll be documenting our crops, I’ll be producing maps of the area, and supporting the biologist. When we go to Devon Island, it’s way up in the Arctic Circle and on the edge of an ancient meteorite crater. It’s about fifteen-twenty million years old. Seven kilometres across, blasted into the Canadian arctic, huge hole filled in, and it generated hot springs. Just like in New Zealand these hot springs become a habitat for all sorts of interesting microbial life forms and on Mars the same thing would happen. Life on Mars may well be able to live in these and form oases that I was talking about earlier. So we’ll be mapping out areas, looking for signs of life in the minerals and the chemistry and the textures, perhaps even life still hanging on in these fossil systems. 

It seems to be just working out how you’d work with the spacesuits, how you’d work in glaciers and stuff like that where you’d be living. Is that right?

Everything is slower and harder when you’re in those spacesuits. So how much can we reasonably expect to do in a day’s work. I know that I’m working the field so I might be able to walk 8-15km in a day’s work, if necessary, collecting samples. But if I had a spacesuit I might only be able to walk four or five kilometres because it’s just so much harder and you’re moving so much slower and you don’t want to run out of air. These simulated spacesuits don’t provide you with an air supply but they do provide ventilation and they get pretty stuffy in those suits if the ventilation fails because the battery’s gone flat. So you’ve got that incentive to stay inside your limits.

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What’s it like living there? I presume there’s a certain amount of camaraderie and social interaction with the other scientists.

Ideally you’ve got a group that gels well together and one of the people, the biologist, I’ve done several expeditions with her before. I know her quite well so that’ll be good. All the other people are new to me. Some of them have worked together before. We’re starting to get to know each other via phone calls and emails and so on so that should help so when we meet face to face there won’t be any big surprises. But you never know. This is the thing; people will be reviewing the human factors and the crew interaction as well. That’s not our main focus on this crew, it’s to do science operations, but we’ll be looking at these other factors. 

Have there been any real surprises or misconceptions about the best practice as far as doing this work on Mars? Have there been any surprises in any of the data that’s come out of these missions?

There was a study done about ten years ago and it was coordinated by a psychologist at the University of Houston Medical School. They called it The Leonardo and Mona Lisa Expeditions and Mars society of Australia have been involved in that as guinea pigs. One group was male only and the other group was female only. To explore whether there were gender differences in how these two groups operated. Whether one worked better than the other, whether there were different strategies. Surprisingly there were very, very few differences between the two groups in terms of how they went about things and how well they performed. Of course you’re dealing with similar types of people. You’re dealing with scientists and engineers and so on, and we suggest that people’s training and motivations and so on are far more important than gender differences, because we’re all people.

The other thing that came out was both groups said they would prefer to be in a mixed group. A male only group and a female only group is a very unnatural situation and people said they would have felt less stressed and more relaxed in a group that was a more normal setup. And my experience of being in a male only groups and mixed groups would be the same. I’d much rather work in a group where there’s men and women and a full set of human beings present than just one or the other.


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