Arctic Space Analog in Svalbard

MIT Media Lab
Published in
7 min readMar 21, 2023


By Maggie Coblentz

A drone flies above the arctic white mountains of Svalbard.
Credit: Maggie Coblentz

High in the Arctic, a team of space engineers, a geologist, an architect, and a designer journeyed to Svalbard for an expedition with the MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative. Their motivation was to test technology to support access to remote regions from the far corners of planet Earth, to the moon, and Mars.

Looking out of the airplane window from above was sea and ice. The last sight of treetops were left behind in mainland Norway.

On October 3, 2022, a team and their robots arrived in Svalbard for an Arctic expedition with MIT Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). For the next 10 days, seven researchers and logistics support from departments across MIT tested technology for space, with applications for remote regions on Earth. This was SEI’s first Arctic expedition and space analog.

Svalbard, also known as Spitsbergen, is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. In the high Arctic at 78° north latitude, Svalbard is covered by 57% glaciers.

Image of a glacier in Svalbard illuminated  by natural pink and peach sunlight at either early dawn or evening.
Glacier front in Svalbard. Credit: Maggie Coblentz

From mid-November to late January, the sun is at least six degrees below the horizon, and Svalbard experiences complete darkness known as the “polar night.” From mid-April to mid-August the opposite occurs, where the sun stays above the horizon known as the “midnight sun.” Just weeks away from the dark season during SEI’s expedition from October 3–12, the team witnessed the light begin to creep away. The average temperature was 23 degrees Fahrenheit (−6 degrees Celsius), made much colder due to high wind.

Jess Todd and Cody Paige wearing orange winter jackets and setting up a LiDAR camera on a tripod at the base of a brown and green mountain.
Jess Todd and Cody Paige setup a LiDAR camera to collect depth data. Credit: Maggie Coblentz

The projects on the expedition all required the opportunity to test technology and user operations in a complex environment. Data from the projects will go on to be published, and insights from the fieldwork will create a model for future versions of the designs and operations. Each project reflects research that could serve both a space and Earth context, and will inspire new ways of pursuing space research on Earth through experience-based learning.

Somayajulu Dhulipala wearing a red hooded jacket and black wind breaker, holding the AgriThrive plant habitat—a clear white orb made of hexagonal and pentagonal prisms—on a bed of rocks. White mountains misty in the background.
Somayajulu Dhulipala installs the AgriThrive plant habitat in Svalbard. Credit: Maggie Coblentz

“Locally grown food will be a big part of making future space missions possible, and could also benefit places on Earth where resources are limited.”

Somayajulu Dhulipala is a PhD student in MIT MechE. The AgriThrive plant habitat is an emergency preparedness system for plants in space, as well as polar regions and deserts on Earth. A miniaturised prototype is being tested in Svalbard under varying light conditions and cold temperatures.

Cody Paige in an orange winter jacket holds a remote controller to direct and test a four-wheeled rover from the MIT Resource Exploration and Science of our Cosmic Environment (RESOURCE) project.
Cody Paige tests a rover from the MIT Resource Exploration and Science of our Cosmic Environment (RESOURCE) project, in collaboration with Ferrous Ward & Don Derek Haddad. Credit: Maggie Coblentz

“In addition to the science, we’re learning important operations on the field that could be applied to space exploration.”

Cody Paige, a PhD graduate student in MIT AeroAstro, applying her background in geology and aerospace engineering to test the technological and scientific use of a virtual reality platform for remote geological exploration. This is part of MIT’s Resource Exploration and Science of our Cosmic Environment (RESOURCE) project. Throughout the expedition, Cody visited three distinct sites in Svalbard to collect visual and environmental data that will be used in their Virtual Reality platform for scientists to later test and compare to traditional geological field methods.

Jess Todd in an orange winter jacket holds a remote controller to operate a white drone, which hovers a short distance in front of her in the air.
Jess Todd operates a drone to gather data for remote exploration. Credit: Maggie Coblentz

“We’re gathering data that will be used to develop technologies for humans and robots off world!”

Jess Todd is PhD student in Aerospace Engineering in Autonomous Systems at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Research Institute. Her project is focused on developing adaptive mapping algorithms for both underwater and planetary science robotics to help target the exploration of different phenomena. In Svalbard Jess gathered invaluable datasets on planetary-like environments to be used for the development of these algorithms.

Joe Kennedy wearing a black winter jacket with the hood over his head, holding a grey hollow orb towards the camera. Misty brown and grey landscape in the backdrop.
Joe Kennedy. Credit: Maggie Coblentz

“You can’t predict the weather, and you can’t always rely on the extreme conditions you planned on.”

Joe Kennedy was previously a graduate student in the MIT Media Lab Mediated Matter group. With a background in architecture, Joe prototyped a lightweight portable living capsule to deploy in harsh environments both for future space pioneers and climate refugees who will require new forms of housing and shelter that can adapt to impending environmental extremes.

For their expedition, SEI was based at the Czech Arctic Research Station, operated by the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice with the support of the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague. The station is located in Longyearbyen, Svalbard and allowed the team to access fieldwork in the surrounding areas. Between activities in the field, in-station life played a big role in community building. Preparing experiments, and cooking were central activities.

In addition to technology development, SEI is interested in the how people live and work in extreme conditions, and how humans will engage with space in the future. Space will no longer be built from a model of survival in extreme environments, but move towards longer stays and routine operations in those same conditions. Crews are made up of individuals of varying backgrounds and expertise.

Sana Sharma facing the camera and wearing a blue winter jacket. Grey and brown, rocky and snow-dusted mountains in the background.
Sana Sharma. Credit: Maggie Coblentz

“We have the opportunity to leverage the experiences of terrestrial extreme environments explorers and residents to envision a more human-centered approach to space.”

Sanjana (Sana) Sharma works with SEI to incorporate qualitative research methods and human-centered design into objects, experiences, and environments for space. In Svalbard, she examined the experiences of both new (SEI) researchers and more seasoned explorers during the expedition.

This project is building on her Astronaut Ethnography research project, which aims to capture and distill first-person accounts of microgravity from spacefaring humans into a series of cultural and design resources to inspire future space engineering, policy, and design.

Sean Auffinger climbs rocky terrain in Svalbard, and turns towards the camera at the base of a hill. Another person stands at the top of the hill in the distance.
Sean Auffinger assists with logistics on the field in Svalbard. Credit: Maggie Coblentz

“Conducting fieldwork in remote locations means you need to problem solve and fix things with the limited resources you have with you.”

Sean Auffinger, SEI’s Mission Integrator, supported the team’s research on the field, along with the Expedition Leader, Maggie Coblentz.

Every morning, the team packed up their research equipment and cold weather gear before hiking out to their field site carrying spare parts and tools, extra batteries, cameras, a drone, rover, and generator. Plans constantly evolved as high winds, rain, sinking mud, cold temperatures, snow cover, swindling light, and the possibility of a polar bear encounter, all created extra challenges for the team and their robots.

Trond Storm Johansen wearing a bright yellow safety vest over a blue winter jacket, with a pair of binoculars hanging from around his neck. Brown and grey snow-tipped mountains in the backdrop.
Trond Storm Johansen keeps watch for polar bears out in the wild in Svalbard. Credit: Maggie Coblentz

Svalbard is home to the polar bear, or isbjørn, which translates to “ice bear” in Norwegian. Consequently, the team needed to be prepared to meet a polar bear out in the wild. Trond Storm Johansen, who has lived on Svalbard for over 50 years, was their dedicated polar bear watch throughout their expedition. His main role was to keep watch at all times, so the team could remain focused on their research.

Maggie Coblentz faces the camera, wearing an orange winter jacket. Brown and grey snow-tipped mountains in the background.
Maggie Coblentz, Svalbard Expedition Leader. Credit: Maggie Coblentz

“Exploring Svalbard by boat and by foot, we visited sites that will continue to inspire further science questions, and consider space technology development that could benefit both Earth and space contexts.”

Maggie Coblentz, Expedition Leader and a researcher at SEI, relocated to Svalbard in 2020 to launch SEI’s first space analog expedition. Building on SEI’s deployment platform, from zero gravity research flights, to International Space Station missions, and soon to the Moon, SEI was motivated to provide students with an additional opportunity to test their projects in a space analog environment and gain first hand experience in the field.

The MIT Space Exploration Initiative unites engineers, scientists, artists, and designers to prototype our space future. Founded in 2016 by SEI Director Ariel Ekblaw, the initiative has grown to over 50 graduate students, staff, and faculty.

SEI sent out an announcement in December 2020 encouraging interdisciplinary project proposals to conduct fieldwork in a space analog environment, and for research with explicit Earth benefits. Svalbard was selected as the first site and Maggie Coblentz and Sean Auffinger began planning the expedition. From January 2021 to October 2022, the team prepared their projects for deployment in the specialised Arctic environment.

A glassy white and black glacier, with a reflection on a pool of ice.
Glacier front in Svalbard. Credit: Maggie Coblentz

Expedition Leader: Maggie Coblentz

Expedition Logistics: Sean Auffinger, SEI Mission Integrator; and Trond Storm Johansen, Expedition Polar Bear Watch

Expedition Projects: Somayajulu Dhulipala, Joe Kennedy, Cody Paige, Sana Sharma, and Jess Todd.

MIT Space Exploration: Elise O’Hara, SEI Administrative Assistant; Albert Antosca, SEI Program Manager; Ariel Ekblaw, SEI Director

The expedition was supported by the MIT Space Exploration Initiative.

This post was originally published on the Media Lab website.



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