Mars Desert Research Station
The Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. (Paul Sokoloff)

Remember your camera on your trip to Mars

“If you are at Mars Desert Research Station, you are most likely doing a Mars simulation mission, so your mind is kind of halfway to space.”

Paul Sokoloff is a senior research assistant at the Canadian Museum of Nature. In his words, as told to SkyNews reporter Elizabeth Howell, he speaks about astrophotography and his time at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) near Hanksville, Utah.

There are a few things that lend MDRS to really great astronomy and astrophotography. It’s a spectacular dark-sky area. In that part of Utah and that part of the American southwest, the skies are incredibly light pollution-free. The local communities aren’t quite as densely packed as more suburban areas. The dry plateau you are in reduces moisture in the atmosphere. So you get really crisp images.

The Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. (Paul Sokoloff)

Another major part of observing there is, at MDRS, you are kind of primed to think about space, anyway. If you are at MDRS, you are most likely doing a Mars simulation mission, so your mind is kind of halfway to space. You are already thinking of what life out there would be like. Most of the participants are keen to further the cause of space exploration, so you are surrounded by people who probably feel exactly the same way about space as you do.

I didn’t do any astrophotography until I met Paul Knightly, an astrophotographer and now a friend, during my first MDRS crew rotation in 2014. He commanded the mission and is a great guy. He taught me how to take star photos, so my love for astrophotography started at MDRS. Since then, I’ve tried to develop my skills a bit.

When this photo was taken in 2019, after having practiced for a few years, I felt really good. I used a Sony A600 mirrorless setup, just with a tripod. I used a wide-angle lens at f/2.0. The lens captures a wide field of view, while maintaining low light levels. I adjusted the light levels and the contrast with the Sony software that came with the camera; I just sharpened the image a bit to reduce noise.

I really wanted to capture not only the stars, but the environment we were in. It’s just this incredible desert, and you do feel like you’re on the surface of Mars. I wanted to capture that dichotomy; it’s very other-worldly with the sky above. The fact you have a ‘Mars’ habitat in the middle of that environment didn’t hurt at all.

My latest mission in 2019 was interesting, because it was a non-simulation biodiversity study where we studied the plants in the area. We also did educational livestreams with classrooms in Canada and the United States. The preliminary results from that survey will be highlighted in a poster at the Canadian Botanical Association’s online conference, running from from June 1 to 2.

This interview has been edited and condensed.