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The Utah desert isn’t known for surprises. Even in February, it’s hot in the daytime, cold at night, and windy. With few people or towns, the night sky brims with stars, and daylight reveals endless quiet vistas of dust, rocks, and distant hills.

So the two-story white tin can perched between two ridges near ­Hanksville stands out. Built by the Mars Society in 2001, the Hab, as it’s known, houses scientists and engineers testing equipment and operational techniques that might be used in another, far more interesting desert: the red, rock-strewn surface of Mars, where the temperature can fall to -87 °C, and dust storms can last for days.

Last winter, I did field work for MIT’s Space Logistics Project at the Hab, testing Ramses (an acronym for “rule-based analytic asset management for space exploration systems”). Ramses combines radio frequency identification (RFID) and Web technology to keep tabs on supply items intended for use by a Mars station crew. Designed to simplify daily housekeeping tasks by ensuring that nothing is ever lost, Ramses would also allow ground crews on Earth to see exactly what was being used on Mars as they stocked items for resupply missions.

My main task was trying out the ­sensor-equipped SSLC (Smart Small Logistics Container). So I tagged a few dozen items (including paper products, hand sanitizer, and a stash of chocolate), stored them in the SSLC, and tested its ability to “see” them and to communicate with a remote database when they needed to be restocked. I also worked with fellow graduate student Arthur Guest (back in Cambridge after his own stint in the Hab) to coördinate software fixes needed to connect the SSLC to Ramses. And I ran experiments for the Space Logistics Project (spacelogistics.mit.edu) and the Space Systems Architecture Group and filed reports with our industry collaborator, Aurora Flight Sciences. In my free time, I used Skype to call classrooms in Florida, Saskatchewan, and Boston to talk about life on “Mars.” Even after the crew and I explained that no, we weren’t really calling from space (a call from Mars would be subject to at least an eight-minute delay), the students were happy to hear from us and eager to learn.

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Credit: Guy de Carufel

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