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Tour Through Hawaii's Simulated Moon Habitat

Hawaii's Big Island is home to the Hi-SEAS, a habitat used internationally to test human space travel to the Moon and Mars. 

By: Shannon Manamtam

15 May 2019

Big Island Hawaii, the drive up Mauna Loa to the Hi-SEAS habitat. 

The Hi-SEAS habitat is best known for the one-year isolation trip taken in 2017, where six researchers simulated living on the surface of Mars to study how humans would adapt to living in space.


Now, a new team of researchers has completed the first round of short-term Moon simulations at the facility. These two-week missions focus on the engineering side of building a simulation, testing technology needed for maintaining a habitat on the Moon.


The Hi-SEAS is located on the Big Island of Hawaii, on the slopes of the volcanic Mauna Loa. The drive up is rocky, as the road is seldom driven. The terrain of Mauna Loa’s volcanic landscape is ideal for Moon and Mars simulations and geological research because it simulates the untouched environment of other space bodies.

“The Polynesian voyage doesn’t end in Hawaii, it starts in Hawaii. The Moon, Mars and beyond. That’s the thing that’s been missing from mankind for a while. We don’t have anywhere to voyage to, so now we have another target, and we are going to voyage.” – IMA founder and Blue Planet Energy CEO Henk Rogers

A five-minute trek further up the mountain from the habitat is a cavern that the crews of the Hi-SEAS have affectionately dubbed “Mordor.” This nickname is not far from the truth, as this cavern is an inactive lava tube, a cave that naturally forms when lava flows underneath hardened lava. When the flowing lava drains out, an open cavern is left behind.


Lava tubes like this also have been found on the Moon, and researchers believe they could potentially serve as lunar bases.


“On the Moon, we found some areas which have skylights like this one, but they are 50 meters wide,” said Bernard Foing, project manager of the Hi-SEAS project and representative of the European Space Agency. “And they are entrances to lava tube galleries that extend over kilometers and kilometers, so we could even build a Moon city in such lava tubes on the Moon.”

Researchers of the Hi-SEAS project hope to explore this cavern more on later visits to the site.

“Our plan is in a future mission to send a crew down there and see how deep it is,” said Rogers.

After two weeks of simulating life on a Moonscape, the six-person crew exited at noon March 6. This was the first time since the beginning of the simulation that they felt the sun on their face without a spacesuit.

This was the first of four two-week Moon missions planned for the Hi-SEAS. Later in the year, they will start the first of two month-long missions, one beginning Nov. 15, and the next on Jan. 15, 2020, according to Foing.

French explorer and Anthropology Ph.D. candidate Benjamin Pothier said the crew developed a  quick camaraderie.

“I was surprised the bonding between crewmates was very fast,” Pothier said. “After two days, we became a family, a sort of Moon family. ... That sort of bonding is important in a confined environment.”

Tour the Habitat

Meet the Crew

Explore Mauna Loa

Courtesy UH News

The crew’s research includes geological and drone surveys, lava tube exploration and space technology testing. The drones are flown by systems engineer Nityaporn Sirikan, who also supports the crew with equipment on their EVAs.

Some volcanic samples collected are dated over 3,000 years. Researcher Annelotte Weert will conduct geochemical analysis, and compare these samples to Mars rover footage to learn more about Mars' geology.

During the simulation period, crew can only exit the habitat while performing Extravehicular Activities (EVA). Crew members dress in spacesuits with air circulators, and pretend to wait in an airlock for 3 minutes before exiting.

What happens if they don't follow the rules?

"Then simulation would be over," said chief investigator Michaela Musilova.

A project under the EuroMoonMars initiative, this habitat is an international effort, lead by the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG) of the European Space Agency (ESA)  and a collaboration among the University of Hawaii, NASA, and the International Moonbase Agency (IMA).


IMA founder and Blue Planet Energy CEO Henk Rogers also provided the project’s mission control, the Blue Planet Research laboratory, an energy self-sufficient ranch located close to the Hi-SEAS habitat.


The habitat is part of a series of projects led by IMA, which is planning on building a moonbase on the Moon and a prototype moonbase on Big Island.


“If you’re going to build a moonbase, Hawaii is the place. We have lava tubes, regular simulant. We have the perfect conditions,” said Rogers who is also the Chairperson for the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES), a Hawaii organization that works to bring the business of space travel to the islands. “The Polynesian voyage doesn’t end in Hawaii, it starts in Hawaii. The Moon, Mars and beyond. That’s the thing that’s been missing from mankind for a while. We don’t have anywhere to voyage to, so now we have another target, and we are going to voyage.”

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