Discuss as:

Volunteer crews chase their dreams in a desert Mars

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Members of the Crew 125 EuroMoonMars B mission return after collecting geological samples for study at the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert on March 2. The mission is meant to simulate what explorers will face during an eventual mission to the Red Planet.

NASA says it could be another 20 years before humans touch down on Mars, but in a sense, the Mars Society has been exploring the red planet for more than a decade — in Utah.

The nonprofit society's Mars Desert Research Station, near Hanksville, Utah, has been home to 126 crews since the Mars-style habitat was erected in 2002. The idea behind the experimental station is to test the tools and techniques that could come into play during eventual human expeditions to the real Red Planet. Each expedition crew consists of roughly a half-dozen volunteers who spend about two weeks in the Utah desert, conducting real research on a make-believe Mars.

Utah's desert is one of several locales around the world that are thought to be sufficiently Mars-like to teach researchers about the far more extreme conditions on the cold, dry planet. Other locales for Mars simulations include the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, Norway's Svalbard Peninsula, caves on the Italian island of Sardinia, and even a lab in Russia.

The crew members for such simulations range from NASA researchers to students who hope to walk on Martian soil someday. Another would-be Marsonaut is Reuters photographer Jim Urquhart, who has long yearned to take pictures of the Mars Desert Research Station and its crew. "I had tried for years to go, but my story pitches never made the cut," he said Monday in a blog posting. This month, Urquhart finally got the green light from his editors, in part because "science and space exploration have become sexy again," he said.

Urquhart came away impressed by the volunteer astronauts. "I kept thinking to myself that this group of six embodies so much of what I wish I could become," he said. "They were passionate and chasing their dreams."

Check out these pictures — and Urquhart's blog posting — for more about his visit to Mars in the Utah desert.

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

The night sky whirls above the Mars Desert Research Station outside Hanksville, Utah, in a long-exposure photo. The station is designed to reflect the type of habitat that would be constructed on the Red Planet for future explorers.

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Csilla Orgel, a geologist, collects samples for study in the Utah desert.

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Members venture out in their simulated spacesuits to collect samples.

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Crew members return to the Mars Desert Research Station after a simulated Marswalk.

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Crew members prepare a meal inside the Mars Desert Research Station. The mock astronauts wear simulation spacesuits when the venture outside, but work in shirt sleeves when they're inside the habitat.

Get a look at the moon's glories, interplanetary vistas and other outer-space highlights from February 2013.