Mars quest starts in Oman

The Herald (South Africa) - - NEWS - Ali­son Tah­mizian Meuse

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 vol­un­teer-based 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 five-per­son ad­vance team loaded up on sun­screen and, with their Omani coun­ter­parts dressed in crisp white gowns and colour­ful tur­bans, boarded 4x4s 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 bon­nets 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, said.

“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.

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.

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