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Simulated Mars Research Station in Utah Damaged by Greenhouse Fire

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Four crewmembers who were simulating a mission on Mars had a serious emergency last month when a strong fire reaching at least 10 feet high caused extensive damage to the greenhouse at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), a simulated Mars surface exploration habitat located about 30 minutes away from Hanksville, Utah.

Although none of the crew members got injured, the incident served as a sobering reminder of what could possibly go wrong during a manned mission to planet Mars that could pose serious injury.

The crew members initially noticed a strange power surge in their habitat on Dec. 29, the first day of their mission. A few minutes later, smoke was seen coming from the greenhouse dubbed the GreenHab.

It was learned that an electrical heater that was placed too close to some wooden shelves was responsible for starting the fire, which caused the unusual power surge as it compromised the outlets at the GreenHab.

The crew tried to stop the flames when it was relatively small but these became bigger reaching about 10 feet. Crew commander Nick Orenstein related that he thought that they could take on the fire when it was still about the size of three overstuffed chairs but it took about 30 minutes to bring it under control.

Even after exhausting the fire extinguishers and cutting the power off, Orenstein and crew Engineer Dmitry Smirnov were not able to put the fire resulting in the middle GreenHab being destroyed. They eventually resorted to putting water on the flames. Emergency response could not immediately reach the site because of its isolated location.

Orenstein related that the four person crew had difficulty dealing with the situation and that for him, having six or seven people would be the realistically adequate number of individuals to take care of such situation most effectively.

Orenstein said that the experience gave him insights on handling similar incidents on Mars. He likewise pointed out the importance of choosing materials in mission structures.

"The fire did make me think about how to handle such a situation on Mars," Orenstein said. "Training and protective equipment is also important so that in an emergency the crew can react quickly and with confidence. ... On real Mars, the long minutes it takes to put on a spacesuit may be the time it takes for the fire to grow out of control."

As for the GreenHab, it will be rebuilt using non-wood materials.

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