AMU Editor's Pick Original Space

Terrestrial Analog Research: Preparing for Space Exploration

Featured Image – The 2011 version of the deep space habitat at the Desert Research and Technology Studies (Desert RATS) analog field test. This configuration includes the Habitat Demonstration Unit with the student-built X-Hab loft on top, a hygiene compartment on one side and airlock on the other. Photo credit: NASA

By Dr. Kristen Miller
Faculty Member, Space Studies

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and commercial companies are moving quickly towards increasing the human exploration and use of space. Consequently, it has become increasingly important to understand the effects of the space environment and long-term space missions on human beings.

In space, there are many environmental factors that affect both human physiology and psychology. The better we are able to identify, understand, and mitigate those effects, the more successful and safer working and living in space will be. 

There Is Limited Information on How Civilians of All Ages React to Space

The International Space Station (ISS) has provided a wealth of information on the ways that space affects the human body. For instance, that information involves the effects of microgravity, increased exposure to radiation, necessary nutrition and supplements, and psychological responses due to the isolated, closed environment of the ISS.

However, these studies are limited by both sample size – so far, a total of 243 people have stayed on the ISS – and the homogeneity of the sample population. To date, ISS astronauts have all been professionally trained and medically screened to ensure they are in good health prior to the mission and are typically between the ages of 26-46. However, there is very little information on the responses of ordinary people of all ages to the space environment.

The Importance of Analog Research

To increase the number of studies that can be done and to enlarge the study sample population so that it includes civilians of all ages and backgrounds, NASA looks to terrestrial analog missions. An analog mission is a structure on Earth that has been developed to mimic the conditions of astronauts living in settlements on the Moon or Mars.

Crews, typically teams of 5-10 people, live in the analog structures for a certain period of time ranging from one week to a few years. During that time, the crew is entirely self-sufficient; they maintain and operate the habitat and perform research with only very limited (if any) contact with the outside world.

Also, crews typically grow at least some of their own food and perform outside missions and repairs while wearing pressurized spacesuits and helmets with life support. They work together to solve any problems that arise within the habitat and with the mission. 

US-Based Analog Research Facilities

There are many analog missions worldwide. Some of the most prominent analog missions within the United States include:

  • The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) in Hawaii
  • The Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) in Texas
  • The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah
  • The Inflatable Lunar-Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH) in North Dakota
  • The Desert Research and Technology Studies (Desert RATS) in Arizona

Each of these facilities provides a unique experience as well as the opportunity to perform valuable research. Some analog missions are designed to test the effects of living in a closed environment; HERA is one good example. Closed-environment analog missions help us to learn about the psychological effects of isolation and the remote conditions that astronauts will experience while traveling to Mars and living in a lunar or Martian settlement.

Related link: Get a 360-degree view of the interior and exterior of HERA

HI-SEAS, MDRS and ILMAH are research-based analog missions. These facilities provide resources such as observatories, greenhouses, and extravehicular activity (EVA) equipment so that crews gain insight into astronaut living and working conditions.

Desert RATS is a distance analog mission. Tn this facility, crew members test robotic systems and EVA equipment, which provides important data for creating functional off world settlements.

An exciting new analog opportunity is NASA’s upcoming Mars Dune Analog mission, which will host a series of three one-year missions. This mission will be a long-duration analog simulation of living and working conditions in a realistic environment duplicating a Mars settlement.

An interesting aspect of this analog mission is that the structure is composed entirely of materials that were 3D-printed by Texas-based construction company ICON. The astronauts in this mission will experience communication delays, resource limitations, and equipment failure in order for scientists to learn more about the effects of physical and mental stressors on long-duration space exploration missions. The first mission is currently scheduled for the fall of 2022.

The Different Types of Analog Research

Different types of research studies can be done effectively in analog settings. The research performed during these missions will include:

  • Studies of crew dynamics, which is especially important due to the diverse nature of the analog mission crews worldwide
  • Psychological responses to stressors in the environment
  • The effects of communication delays
  • Human performance factors
  • Experiments on plant growth
  • Geological and astronomical studies
  • Tests of technological equipment, including rovers and spacesuit designs

Each of these areas relates directly to space exploration missions. They will help NASA plan and prepare for successful, long-term space missions.

The University’s Analog Research Group

One of our student organization chapters, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), recently developed the American Public University System Analog Research Group (AARG), led by project manager Scott Van Hoy. The goal of AARG is to send several groups of students, both undergraduate- and graduate-level students, to serve as crew members in analog environments.

Our students will work with the members of the AARG to apply for analog missions. They will also help to develop appropriate research to be performed during their time in the mission.

Currently, the AARG has targeted two analog facilities – ILMAH and MDRS. AARG has negotiated a working relationship with the ILMAH analog facility that will enable the group to send crews of three to four of our students on biannual missions (one each fall and spring).

The first crew of our students is preparing to participate in a mission in October 2021 at ILMAH. The ILMAH crew plans to investigate the improvements in the design/flow of the space-based living/working facilities, the growth of both tomato seeds and the algae Spirulina in Martian regolith (soil), and the ability of crew members to recognize emotions based on facial expressions during this mission.

ILMAH habitat
Overview shot of the ILMAH habitat. Image courtesy of the University of North Dakota and ILMAH.

ILMAH EVA rover and spacesuits
The EVA rover and spacesuits. Image courtesy of the University of North Dakota and ILMAH.

ILMAH greenhouse
The greenhouse lab that students will be using. Image courtesy of the University of North Dakota and ILMAH.

The AARG has also just announced that the members of its first crew may participate in the MDRS analog facility; the AARG team hopes to be awarded a mission date in early 2023. The MDRS crew will explore the use of drones in communication, create a map of the local night sky for celestial navigation, investigate whether mindfulness can decrease stress during the mission and monitor crew health. The crew will also perform astronomical observations and maintain the greenhouse facility.

Additional Space Resources

To learn more about the AARG group and how you can get involved, please visit the AARG webpage or email us. You can also find AARG on several social media sites:

For more information or to join our chapter of AIAA, please contact us via email

To learn more about NASA’s current push towards human exploration of the Moon and Mars, plan to attend the upcoming Space Education and Strategic Analysis (SESA) Conference on September 23-24. This free, virtual conference will highlight the current initiatives to create the infrastructure and policies needed to make space a viable living and working environment.

Dr. Kristen Miller is an associate professor of space studies. She holds a B.S. in physics from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in astronomy from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her thesis work studied turbulence in magnetic fields in the protostellar disks surrounding young stars using supercomputer simulations, investigating both the ways in which turbulence allows angular momentum transport within the disks and how coupling of the gas to the field influences the direction of the accretion flow onto the protostar. Currently, Dr. Miller leads the Supernova Search Program, a program dedicated to detecting supernovae and other transient objects in nearby galaxies. She also leads the Analog Research Group, which is working to send a team of students on a Mars/lunar analog experience at the Mars Desert Research Station. Dr. Miller is the co-advisor of the student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). She will be a presenter at the 2021 SESA conference and also serves on a variety of committees at the University.

Comments are closed.