In Oman desert, a gate­way to life on Mars

Kuwait Times - - Front Page -

DHO­FAR, Oman: In sun­glasses and jump­suits, a crew of Euro­pean test as­tro­nauts is lay­ing the ground­work for a Mars sim­u­la­tion in the bar­ren ex­panse of the Omani desert, a ter­res­trial mis­sion in­tended to pave the way to the red planet. The “ana­log as­tro­nauts” of the Aus­trian Space Fo­rum - a vol­un­teer­based col­lec­tive - have ar­rived in Oman to be­gin prepa­ra­tions for a four-week sim­u­la­tion mis­sion due to be­gin next year.

Touch­ing down at Mar­mul Air­port, a re­mote out­post used by oil work­ers, the fiveper­son ad­vance team loaded up on sun­screen and, with their Omani coun­ter­parts dressed in crisp white gowns and col­or­ful tur­bans, boarded four-by-fours and plunged into the desert un­der the blaz­ing sun. Oil in­stal­la­tions re­ceded into the back­ground and only rocky plateaus and an­cient sandy riverbeds re­mained as far as the eye could see. Maps were spread on the hoods of the ve­hi­cles.

“We want to sim­u­late Mars on Earth and so we need a place that looks as much like Mars as pos­si­ble. And we found it here in Oman,” Alexan­der Soucek, the lead flight di­rec­tor of the AMADEE-18 mis­sion, told AFP. The team was on a quest to pin down the lo­ca­tion of the base camp for the sim­u­la­tion, to be held in Fe­bru­ary. “Here the hu­mans com­ing from Earth will land after six months travel through space... Sim­u­lated, of course!” Soucek said upon ar­rival at the cho­sen site. “When we fly to Mars in re­al­ity, we will need as many ques­tions as pos­si­ble al­ready an­swered so that we are re­ally well pre­pared.”

Dur­ing the mis­sion, the team will carry out a se­ries of ex­per­i­ments, from grow­ing greens with­out soil in an in­flat­able hy­dro­ponic green­house to test­ing an au­ton­o­mous “tum­ble­weed” rover, which maps out ter­rain while pro­pelled by the wind. “There are very few groups on this planet test­ing th­ese pro­ce­dures and do­ing th­ese high-fidelity sim­u­la­tions,” said Soucek. “We are one of them.” The team hopes the sim­u­la­tion will help nail down fu­ture tools and pro­ce­dures for the first manned mis­sion to Mars.

Field com­man­der Ger­not Groe­mer pre­dicts a Mars mis­sion may be car­ried out by a col­lec­tive of the United States, Rus­sia, Europe and pos­si­bly China rel­a­tively soon with the first hu­man to set foot on the red planet maybe al­ready born. “What we’re go­ing to see here in about 100 days is go­ing

to be a sneak pre­view into the fu­ture,” said Groe­mer, de­scrib­ing a U-shaped en­camp­ment where “an exquisitely com­piled suite of ex­per­i­ments” will take place.

Those in­clude ex­per­i­ments de­signed to test hu­man fac­tors that could af­fect pi­o­neer­ing as­tro­nauts, such as men­tal fa­tigue and de­pres­sion. Just 15 peo­ple will en­ter the iso­la­tion phase, when their only way to trou­bleshoot snags will be through re­mote com­mu­ni­ca­tion with “earth” in Aus­tria.

The to­tal cost of the project is ex­pected to be around half-a-mil­lion eu­ros, cov­ered mainly by pri­vate do­na­tions from in­dus­try part­ners. Crit­ics of such space mis­sions see the mas­sive amounts of money as a lux­ury in a time of aus­ter­ity mea­sures in Europe and de­pressed oil prices in the Gulf. The Aus­trian Space Fo­rum ar­gues the money is not be­ing “thrown into space” and that the tools be­ing de­vel­oped are not only use­ful for life on a dis­tant planet but for our own. “Most peo­ple ev­ery day use a hand­ful of space tech­nolo­gies with­out even know­ing it,” said Groe­mer, list­ing off satel­lite im­agery, fuel in­jec­tion for cars and breast can­cer screen­ing soft­ware.

Yes­ter­day the Aus­trian Space Fo­rum signed a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing with Oman, mak­ing the sul­tanate’s se­lec­tion as the mis­sion site of­fi­cial. For the Omani As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety, which in­vited the Aus­trian Space Fo­rum, the mis­sion is a way to in­spire the coun­try’s youth. A se­ries of lec­tures is tak­ing place at Sul­tan Qa­boos Grand Mosque in Mus­cat, geared es­pe­cially to­ward hun­dreds of young stu­dents.

Al-Khat­tab Ghalib Al-Hi­nai, deputy head of the steer­ing com­mit­tee for AMADEE-18 and vice chair­man of Oman’s State Coun­cil, says a high school team will even par­tic­i­pate, con­duct­ing a geo­physics ex­per­i­ment to find wa­ter. “The whole idea is to ignite imag­i­na­tion within the young so­ci­ety in Oman, fe­male and male, and I hope this jour­ney of dis­cov­ery will help them to al­ways search for the un­known,” the ge­ol­o­gist said. “I hope to see as­tro­physi­cists in Oman, I hope to see ge­ol­o­gists. I hope to see as­tro­nauts in the fu­ture.” — AFP


Mem­bers of the Aus­trian Space Fo­rum in­spect a site in Oman’s Dho­far desert near the south­ern Mar­mul out­post on Sun­day.

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