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Space Agencies Are Tracking Two Explorers En Route to Antarctica's 'Pole of Inaccessibility'

A 2,500-mile journey across Antarctica could hold lessons for future Moon and Mars missions.

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Justin Packshaw and Jamie Facer Childs in Antarctica
Justin Packshaw and Jamie Facer Childs in Antarctica
Photo: Chasing the Light

Two men are three weeks into an expedition to Antartica’s Pole of Inaccessibility, an isolated spot that is 560 miles from the South Pole. The pair are working in collaboration with NASA and the European Space Agency as they record the psychological and physiological effects of the journey, data that the space agencies believe could give a sense of how human bodies will respond to harsh environments like the Moon and Mars.

The trek is part of the Chasing the Light mission, a crossing of Antarctica that will subject its two participants, Justin Packshaw and Jamie Facer Childs, to the grueling conditions on the Antarctic continent. (Though it is currently summer at the South Pole, temperatures remain comfortably below zero with, winds that can blow at 100 miles per hour.)

In all, the journey is comprised of a 1,100-mile jaunt to the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility, a further 560 miles to the South Pole, an 802-mile leg to the Hercules Inlet, and a final 124-mile sprint to Union Glacier, near the base of the Antarctic peninsula.

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Poles of inaccessibility exist on every continent, and there’s even one in the ocean; they refer to isolated places that are hard to access from any direction. Though they’re not always the most inland points, they are typically so, as taking a boat is often easier than traveling over land. (Just ask the Erie Canal or the Northwest Passage.) Packshaw and Childs will each be lugging 440-pound sleds, according to the BBC, and will make their progress with the help of skis and kites.

Marie Byrd Land from a NASA DC-8.
Antarctica’s Marie Byrd Land as seen from the air.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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NASA, the ESA, and Stanford University are collecting data on how the human body deals with extreme conditions vis-a-vis the pair’s saliva, blood, urine, and stool samples. According to the Daily Mail, the travelers’ eyesight is also being studied to investigate how humans perceive their environment.

This study will be useful to better understanding a situation that happened on the Moon in 1971, when astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell decided not to investigate a large crater, thinking it was far in the distance when it was actually only 50 feet away. A NASA scientist told the Daily Mail that the lunar environment’s depth of field probably confused the astronauts.

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Antarctica’s barren landscape is somewhat similar, making it a good testing ground for human missions to the Moon and Mars. And with Moon missions planned for the mid- and late-2020s, the current expedition comes at a good time.

The Chasing the Light mission is expected to conclude by February; the team is currently 554 miles into their first leg.

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