Under the Dome

wearing a spacesuit outside the dome
Courtesy of Angelo VermeulenThe dome and its inhabitants occupy an abandoned quarry on the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii.
Unlike the popular CBS-TV series "Under the Dome," the inhabitants of this dome are in a self-imposed isolation, which began on Oct 15. Imagine spending eight months in a remote dome with five other people, with limited communication with the outside world. These six people were selected from 150 applicants with the primary purpose to examine the crew psychology of working and living together for an extended length of time.

This project is in preparation for a future trip to Mars that could take in excess of three years. This particular mission at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, habitat site is NASA-financed and is the third of four such studies currently planned.

The location is on a remote abandoned quarry at an 8,000-foot elevation on the Mauna Loa shield volcano in Hawaii, which resembles the surface of Mars. The site contains little vegetation, no rare, threatened or endangered species, and no archaeological sites. Access to the location will be blocked off for the duration of the project.

The Dome, supplied by Pacific Domes International, was designed by architect V. Paul Ponthieux of Envision Design and was built by Blue Planet Research. The geodesic dome is two stories high, 36 feet in diameter with about 1,000 square feet of space.

"We have a solar panel array as the main source of power, with an H2 fuel cell for backup, and a gasoline generator (almost never used!) as a backup for that," says Dr. Kimberly Binsted, associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the principal investigator for the project. "There are also solar hot water panels."

Regarding plumbing, Binsted says, "We have to bring in water (stored in two 500 gallon tanks). The habitat has two composting toilets and a septic tank."

The crew will have very small bedrooms -- just enough room for a smaller-than-single bed and a mini-desk. Each member is allowed to bring two suitcases of personal belongings, but no food or drink.

Hawaii's Remote and Experimental Dome Home
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Under the Dome
The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, habitat. The ground floor includes common areas -- a kitchen, dining room bathroom with shower, laboratory and exercise area. The second floor loft includes six bedrooms and a half-bath that spans 424 square feet.

The kitchen that will be used by the crew.

Photo: Courtesy of Sian Proctor

A typical bedroom.

Photo: Courtesy of Ross Lockwood

Four of the six bedrooms on the second floor, as viewed through their open doorways.

Photo: Courtesy of Sian Proctor

The current crew.

Courtesy of Jocelyn Dunn

A previous crew poses in front of the dome, prior to the mission.

Photo: Courtesy of Jocelyn Dunn

A single window looks out on Mauna Kea and a barren lava field that resembles the surface of Mars, viewed here by Yajaira, a participant in a previous HI-SEAS Mission.

Photo: Courtesy of Stan Proctor

The crew will use protective gear when they are outside of the dome, just as they would on the surface of Mars.

Photo: Courtesy of Angelo Vermeulen

An additional 20-foot steel recycled shipping container is attached to the dome and functions as a workspace.

Graphic: Courtesy of Angelo Vermeulen


Communication will be limited to emails, which will have a 40-minute delay, which is approximately what it would be like on a spaceship traveling to Mars. Web surfing as we think of it is not possible because of the delay, but static sites, which do not require a delay, such as Wikipedia, can be accessed. Residents of the Dome also will be able to access their personal financial records so that they can keep an eye on their finances.

A medical doctor off-site will monitor their mental and physical health, and one of the crew was a field medic in the army and can deal with minor health issues. A cell phone will be available for immediate medical emergencies as well as natural emergencies, such as hurricanes, which may threaten the location.

With no television, Web surfing and outside cultural events, you might wonder what the crew will be doing with their time, but Binsted says "the group will be quite busy." They will have everyday-type chores and activities, such as interior and exterior maintenance, cleaning, cooking and exercise. Each of the residents also will have their own projects to work on.

For example, the commander of this mission, Martha Lenio will be researching sustainable living aspects while living in the dome. And several HI-SEAS crew members will be posting blogs about their "Mars" experience, including Zak Wilson at www.almostmars.com, and Jocelyn Dunn at fivestarview.blogspot.com, who has a passion for working at the interface of humans and technology.

The other crew members, Neil Scheibelhut, Sophie Milam and Allen Mirkadyrov will also be working on research projects. Two alternate crewmembers, Ed Fix and Michael Castro, will be available if one or two of the crew are required to leave the project.

Future missions are planned for this location, including a 12-month mission slated to begin in August 2015. For more information, visit hi-seas.org.

[CORRECTION, 10/27/14: An earlier version of this article said that the dome was built by the Blue Planet Foundation. It was built by Blue Planet Research.]
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