Inside a giant crater in Israel’s sun-baked Negev desert, a team dressed in space suits embarks on a mission to simulate conditions on Mars. The Austrian Space Forum has established a simulated Martian base with the Israeli Space Agency at Makhtesh Ramon, a 1,600-foot (500 m) deep, 25-mile (40 km)-wide crater.
Six so-called “analog astronauts” will remain in isolation in the virtual station until the end of the month.
“It’s like a dream come true,” 36-year-old Israeli Elon Tenzer told AFP. “It’s something we’ve been working on for years.”
The participants – from Austria, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain – all underwent grueling physical and psychological tests.
During their mission, they will conduct tests including a drone prototype that works without GPS, and on automated wind- and solar-powered mapping vehicles.
The mission will also aim to study human behavior and the effects of isolation on astronauts.
“The solidarity of the group and their ability to work together is critical to survival on Mars,” said Austrian mission supervisor Gernot Gromer.
“It’s like a wedding, except a wedding you can leave but on Mars you can’t.
Biggest journey ever
The Austrian Space Forum, a private organization made up of aerospace experts, has already conducted 12 missions, the most recent in Oman in 2018.
The Israel project is part of the Amadi-20 mission, which was expected to launch last year, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Forum has partnered with Israeli research center D-MARS to build a solar-powered base.
German astronaut Anika Mehlis, the only female on the team, told AFP how happy she is to be part of the project.
“My father took me to the Space Museum when I was little,” she said. “When I saw that the forum was looking for analog astronauts, I told myself I had to apply.”
Mehlis, a trained microbiologist, will study a scenario where Earth’s bacteria infect potential life forms that could be found on Mars, saying it “would be a huge problem”.
Visually, the surrounding desert resembles the Red Planet with its stony forest and orange hue, although thankfully not in terms of atmospheric conditions.
“Here, we have a temperature of about 25-30 degrees Celsius, but on Mars the temperature is minus 60 degrees Celsius and the atmosphere is not suitable for breathing,” Gromer said.
The interior of the base is strict, containing a kitchenette and bunk beds. Most of the space is reserved for scientific experiments.
NASA envisions launching the first manned mission to Mars in 2030.
“What we’re doing here is creating a huge mission, the biggest journey our society has ever taken, as Mars and Earth are 380 million kilometers apart at their peak,” Gromer said.
“I believe the first human to walk on Mars has already been born and we are about to build ships to enable this journey.”