In the Israeli desert, astronauts simulate “life on Mars” with 50-kilo suits.
In a crater 500 meters deep lost in the ocher expanse of the Negev desert, the astronauts equipped with their suits advance with a heavy step. Purpose of their mission? Simulate the conditions of life on Mars in southern Israel.
In this unique setting of Makhtesh Ramon, the largest erosion crater in the world which stretches over 40 km in length, the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) has set up a “Martian base”, in partnership with the Israeli space agency, as part of their Amadee-20 mission, initially planned last year but postponed for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The crater, the stony desert and the orange hues of the horizon approach the Martian landscape, less weightlessness and cold. “Here, we have temperatures which are 25-30 degrees, on Mars it is minus 60 degrees Celsius and the atmosphere is unbreathable”, explains the Austrian Gernot Grömer, who supervises the mission.
For almost a month and until the end of October, six “analogous astronauts” – an expression used to describe people on Earth reproducing the conditions of a long mission in space – from Portugal, Spain, Germany, -Bas, from Austria and Israel, will live cut off from the world in this “Martian station”. And they can only get out of it in a spacesuit, as if they were on the red planet.
“It’s a dream come true,” raves Alon Tenzer, 36-year-old Israeli astronaut. “It’s something we’ve been working on for several years, I’m very happy to be here,” he told AFP.
On the occasion of the inauguration of the station on Sunday, Alon put on his finery: his silver jumpsuit weighs, he says, about 50 kilos, and it takes two to three hours to put it on.
“Marriage” with Mars
All of the “crew” volunteered. But they had to pass many physical and psychological tests to participate in this mission and to carry out a whole series of experiments.
“My father took me to the space museum when I was little, he collected airplanes and when I heard that the forum was looking for similar astronauts I said to myself that I had to apply”, says the German Anika Mehlis, the only woman in the group.
The Austrian Space Forum, a private organization bringing together aerospace specialists, had already organized 12 similar missions around the world, the last of which, Amadee-18, in the Sultanate of Oman three years ago. This time it has teamed up with the Israeli research center D-MARS, to build a polygon-shaped, solar-powered base.
Inside, the comfort is spartan with a small kitchen and bunk beds because most of the space is reserved for scientific experiments. Their results could one day prove essential, the US space agency, NASA, considering a first manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.
Risk of microbial contamination
During their month recreating Mars on Earth, the analogue astronauts will have to test a prototype drone that works without GPS and autonomous vehicles powered by wind and solar energy to map the territory.
A trained microbiologist, Anika Mehlis will assess the possibility of microbial contamination, that is to say of introducing terrestrial bacteria onto Mars with the risk of eliminating any life that could be there. “It will be a big problem,” she says, touching on one of the major challenges of the conquest of space.
In addition to testing equipment and technologies, the mission also aims to study human behavior, and in particular the impact of isolation on astronauts.
“Group consistency and the ability to work together is crucial to survive on Mars,” said supervisor Gernot Grömer. “It’s like in a marriage apart that in a marriage you can go; on Mars, you can’t, ”he quipped.
“What we are doing here is preparing for the greatest trip our society has ever made, Mars and Earth being located 380 million kilometers away at their most extreme points,” he continues. Mr. Grömer is certain: “The first man who will walk on Mars has already been born.”