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Mars simulation kicks off in remote Oman desert

February 9, 2018

Researchers with the Austrian Space Forum have started a three-week simulated mission to Mars in Oman's barren desert. It may be less flashy than a SpaceX rocket, but the mission still hopes to answer major questions.

Mars simulation mission participant in Oman
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Mcneil

Six "analog astronauts" clad in heavy, aluminum-coated suits began a three-week simulated Mars mission in Oman on Thursday.

No breakdown service on Mars

The Austrian Space Forum (OWF), a mainly volunteer collective that has sponsors from the private sector, is hoping to develop techniques that will help humans survive on Mars.

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Sequestered away in a remote corner of the Dhofar desert in the Gulf nation of Oman, the six researchers will spend weeks in conditions that have been crafted to most closely resemble those on the Red Planet.

"People from around 20 countries are working together on this mission," said Reinhard Tlustos, director of the mission simulation, which is called AMADEE-18.

The volunteers, who hail from the private space sector as well as from traditional space agencies, will live in igloo-shaped tents, drive rovers and carry out several experiments.

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Coping with isolation

Two of the biggest questions the mission hopes to answer are how the analog astronauts deal with the physical challenges presented by the terrain and heat, and how they deal with the psychological challenges like teamwork and isolation.

"These are things I think can't be underestimated," mission participant and space debris expert Kartik Kumar said.

The six researchers will carry out a total of 16 scientific experiments during their Mars simulation, which will include testing a "tumbleweed" robot rover, a new Aouda space suit, and 3D printing parts to repair machinery to growing plants in an inflatable greenhouse.

Mission to Mars

They're being supported by a team of 200 people who are on the ground near their desert mission site, as well as the simulation's mission control in Innsbruck, Austria.

Communications between the site in Oman and the Innsbruck mission control have also been staggered in a way that will mimic the distance between Earth and Mars. This means it will take 10 minutes for messages from Oman to reach the base in Austria.

On Tuesday, US billionaire Elon Musk launched his company's SpaceX Falcon Heavy — the world's most powerful rocket — expanding the possibilities of deep space travel.

The launch proved motivating for the group in Oman, who hopes that as the race to put humans on Mars heats up, it will be a cooperative one.

"The first person to walk on Mars has in fact already been born, and might be going to elementary school now in Oman, or back in Europe, in the US or China," flight controller for the International Space Station and mission participant Joao Lousada said.

rs/bw (AP, AFP, dpa)