Bruneau Dunes Park helps scientists design a mission to Mars


Bruneau Dunes State Park has similarities to Mars.  Here, scientists set up a simulated NASA spacecraft to prepare for a future space exploration mission — part of a conference held at Boise State University in June 2022.

Bruneau Dunes State Park has similarities to Mars. Here, scientists set up a simulated NASA spacecraft to prepare for a future space exploration mission — part of a conference held at Boise State University in June 2022.

Boise State University

For space scientists, the majestic sand dunes of Idaho are a window to Mars.

Last month, planetary researchers from across the country traveled to Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park in Idaho to plan future space missions. The goal was to use the park as a replica of other parts of the solar system and design a cost-effective Mars lander – a spacecraft that rests on a celestial body and sends data to Earth.


This story is a subscriber exclusive

The workshop brought together researchers from Boise State University and organizations such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Southwest Research Institute, the US Geological Survey and the US Naval Laboratory.

Bruneau is an analogous field site, Alejandro Soto, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas, told the Idaho Statesman. It’s not the same as standing on Mars or Titan, Saturn’s moon – where we can’t breathe – but it’s similar to those places in the solar system.

“While I would have liked to have had real teleportation capabilities, this is the closest I come – at least within the limits of existing technologies – to some sort of teleportation somewhere else,” Soto said.

Sand dunes exist on Mars, Titan and potentially even Pluto and Venus, Soto said.

Bruneau’s sand is unconsolidated, which means the wind can move it easily and form dunes, Christy Swann, a researcher at the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC, told the Statesman. This makes Bruneau similar to Mars, where there is no vegetation to hold the sediments in place.

Make Martian measurements on Earth

Swann, who has extensive experience developing instruments and conducting fieldwork on Earth, led the trip.

“Sending something to Mars is like the toughest, most expensive, toughest field experiment ever,” Swann said.

In the dunes, Swann set up a mock-up of a Mars lander with instruments on it, leading a discussion on how to use these tools to best measure surface-atmosphere interactions on planetary bodies.

These interactions — like blowing winds, moving sand and dust, and changing water vapor — have been the dominant forces on planetary surfaces for millions and billions of years, said Serina Diniega, planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, at Statesman. Understanding them is the key to interpreting current information about celestial bodies.

Participants brainstormed considerations such as the size and structure of instruments on spacecraft, as well as desired landing zones.

“When it comes to Mars, the No. 1 question is life,” Swann said.

Scientists often aim to send landers to places that might reveal organic matter or any type of life, which are usually in ancient lake beds — where the Perseverance rover is currently located, Swann said. These locations can indicate things like flowing water, which can lead to life.

But for this workshop, the scientists were particularly interested in dusty landers. A place with unconsolidated sand and no large rocks is more prone to a dust storm. Researchers want to study these storms, Swann said. This makes Bruneau an ideal test bed.

Hope for a space mission in the next decade

Spacecraft travel opportunities are expensive and limited, Diniega said. But advances in planetary technology have made small, targeted missions more economically feasible. Small missions can answer valuable scientific questions, and missions to the Moon or Mars are of great commercial interest, Diniega added.

And with new propulsion systems that reduce launch costs, small spacecraft could venture even further into space – beyond low Earth orbit, to the moon or Mars.

The next step is to propose a space mission to NASA, hopefully within the next decade, Soto said.

Once researchers send up a spacecraft, they can’t repair it, which makes planning for scientists all the more important. “There’s no repair truck that can pick him up,” Diniega said.

The National Academy of Sciences has issued new guidance on priorities for space exploration over the next decade, Soto said. The guidelines propose that larger missions, called New Frontiers, go next, followed by smaller-scale discovery missions, like the ones the researchers hope to do, he added.

It will likely take a year or two to see how NASA plans things out, Soto said, and he hopes there will be two or three opportunities to come up with missions over the next decade.

“But that’s the part of the exploration that we don’t control. It depends on the priorities of NASA, the budget priorities of Congress, and the will of the American people,” Soto said.

Idaho Statesman Related Stories

Writer Tanushri Sundar will cover science news for the Idaho Statesman for summer 2022 on a fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media. A recent graduate of Brown University, she studied computer science and cognitive science.
Support my work with a digital subscription
Previous Commonwealth Magazine
Next Better Juice and GEA test sugar reduction technology at new site