In complete combinations under a blazing sun, a team of Austrian astronauts prepares a camp in the desert areas of Dhofar, Oman. A mission to simulate life on Mars before a future journey on the red planet.
“We want to simulate Mars on Earth and we needed a place that is as close as possible to this planet, we found it here,” Alexander Soucek, the main “flight director” of this mission, told AFP. AMADEE-18.
Around it, rocky plateaus and sandy river beds stretch as far as the eye can see: the Dhofar, a vast desert in the southwest of the Sultanate of Oman, appears out of the earthly world.
To arrive at what will become Mars on Earth for an experiment, the members of the Austrian Space Forum – a group of volunteers – had to drive for hours in off-road vehicles from Marmul, a small aerodrome used by employees of the oil sector.
They are accompanied by their Omani counterparts wearing traditional white dresses and colorful turbans.
“Here, the humans coming from the Earth will land after six months of travel in the space … simulated, of course”, explains with enthusiasm Mr. Soucek on arrival at the site chosen to establish the simulation of Martian life.
Authorities in Oman have given the green light to this unprecedented scientific experiment and an official agreement was signed on Monday with the Austrian team.
“When we fly to Mars one day, we will need as many answers as possible to the questions that need to be really well prepared,” said Soucek.
– ‘Preview of the future’ –
The simulation will begin in February 2018 and will last four weeks.
It will enable researchers to experiment with hydroponics – without natural soil – of vegetables in inflatable greenhouses, as well as an autonomous machine propelled by wind to map the terrain.
“There are very few groups on this planet that test these procedures and perform these high precision simulations and we are one of them,” says Soucek.
His team hopes that the February simulation will help determine the tools and procedures to be mastered for a future first manned mission on Mars.
The team’s commander, Gernot Groemer, predicts that such a mission could be conducted in the coming decades by a collective including the United States, Russia, Europe and perhaps even China.
“What we are going to see here in a hundred days is a taste of the future,” he says, pointing to a U-shaped camp.
Here, about fifteen people will also be put in isolation to test, among others, how mental fatigue or depression could affect astronauts. To solve possible problems, these isolated testers will be able to communicate only remotely with the “Earth”…. in Austria.
– ‘Useful for the Earth’ –
The total cost of the project is estimated at half a million euros, financed mainly by private contributions from partner companies.
Detractors see this type of mission as a waste of money, while European countries have adopted fiscal austerity measures as the Gulf States, affected by the fall in oil revenues.
But the Austrian Space Forum says the money will not be “thrown into space”, as the results of the research will be useful not only for life on a distant planet but also on Earth.
“Most people use space technologies every day without even knowing it, “Groemer says, listing satellite imagery, fuel injection for cars, and breast cancer screening software.
For the Omani Astronomical Society, which has invited the Austrian center, the mission is perceived as a source of inspiration for the young people of the Sultanate.
A series of lectures will be held at the Great Mosque of Sultan Qaboos in Muscat to destinations especially students.
According to the deputy head of the board of directors of AMADEE-18 and vice-president of the Oman State Council, Al-Khattab Ghalib al-Hinai, a team of Omani high school students will even participate in geophysical experiments to try to find water in the desert.
“The idea is to stimulate the imagination of the young people of Oman (…) and I hope that this mission of discovery will help them to search for the unknown,” said Mr. Hinai, himself a geologist.
“I hope to see a generation of astrophysicists emerge in Oman; I hope to see geologists and astronauts in the future”.