In a huge crater in Israel’s sun-drenched Negev desert, a team in spacesuits ventures out on a mission to simulate the conditions on Mars. The Austrian Space Forum has set up a simulated Mars base with the Israeli space agency in Makhtesh Ramon, a 500 m deep and 40 km wide crater.
The six so-called “analog astronauts” will live in isolation in the virtual station until the end of the month.
“It’s a dream come true,” 36-year-old Israeli Alon Tenzer told AFP. “We have been working on this for years.”
The participants – from Austria, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain – all had to pass strenuous physical and psychological tests.
During their mission, they will carry out tests, including on a drone prototype that works without GPS, and on automated, wind- and solar-powered mapping vehicles.
The mission also aims to study human behavior and the effects of isolation on the astronauts.
“The cohesion of the group and their ability to work together are crucial for survival on Mars,” said Gernot Groemer, the Austrian head of mission.
“It’s like a marriage, except you can walk in a marriage, but not on Mars.
Greatest trip ever
The Austrian Space Forum, a private organization of space specialists, has already organized 12 missions, most recently in Oman in 2018.
The Israel project is part of the Amadee-20 mission, which is expected to start last year but has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The forum has teamed up with the Israeli research center D-MARS to build the solar powered base.
German astronaut Anika Mehlis, the only woman on the team, told AFP how happy she was to be part of the project.
“My father took me to the space museum when I was a kid,” she said. “When I saw that the forum was looking for analog astronauts, I told myself I had to apply.”
Mehlis, a trained microbiologist, is set to investigate a scenario where bacteria from Earth infect potential life forms that might be found on Mars and says this is “a huge problem”.
Visually, the surrounding desert with its stony wilderness and shades of orange resembles the Red Planet, although fortunately not in terms of atmospheric conditions.
“Over here we have temperatures of around 25-30 degrees Celsius, but on Mars it’s minus 60 degrees Celsius and the atmosphere is not suitable for breathing,” says Groemer.
The interior of the base is simple, with a small kitchen and bunk beds. Most of the space is reserved for scientific experiments.
NASA expects the first manned mission to Mars to start in 2030.
“We are preparing a great mission here, the greatest journey our society has ever undertaken, since Mars and Earth are at their extreme point 380 million kilometers apart,” said Groemer.
“I believe the very first person to walk on Mars is born and we are the shipbuilders who make this journey possible.”