In 1912, the famous writer of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, created a series of tales about another mind-bending environment. He substituted the jungles of Africa with the desolation of Mars, to which a Southern gentleman by the name of John Carter had been inexplicably transported. More than a century later, the red planet is still a place that sets our imagination on fire.
If nothing goes wrong, in a little more than a decade NASA’s first human mission will set out for Mars, with a budget of more than $100 billion. Moreover, the Russians are also preparing to send a crew to the fourth planet from the sun and the Chinese are expressing an interest in doing something similar, as are private organizations like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which could beat everyone else and complete the trip in five years.
A round journey to Mars reportedly takes more than two years, and will need unparalleled technical and psychological strength. One tiny step on the road is being made as of this week at Makhtesh Ramon, a huge crater located in the Negev, in southern Israel.
Any real trip to the second-smallest planet in the solar system, a vast distance from Earth, must of course be carried off without a hitch. To get to that point, “Mars simulations” have been tried in different locations across the globe. The most sophisticated of these projects was launched Sunday near Makhtesh Ramon, under the auspices of the Austrian Space Forum and the Israel Space Agency.
During their three-week trip, six astronauts from Austria, Germany, Holland, Israel, Portugal and Spain will stay in total isolation in a unique construction intended to mimic a space station. The astronauts will conduct a range of tests that have been chosen for the project, in which more than 200 scientists from 25 nations are participating.
Makhtesh Ramon is one of the few locations on the planet that, in terms of soil structure, minerals, remoteness, and other severe circumstances, is comparable to the conditions on Mars. Three years ago, a similar exercise took place over the course of four days on the planet Mars. This is not the first time that such an exercise has taken place.
Gernot Grömer, director of the Austrian Space Forum, seems to be a real-life counterpart of the animated character Buzz Lightyear when he is dressed in a bulky spacesuit. During an interview with SpaceXMania, Dr. Grömer said that his team has been working on the Mars-Israel (AMADEE-20) project for four years, and he expressed excitement at the fact that it is really taking place now.
Grömer, who is spending his first night at the Negev station, claims that the simulation is the most sophisticated in the world, both in terms of its construction and the research that is being carried out at the station. It is one of the few locations on the globe that looks so much like Mars – with “twin sites” on the planet, according to Makhtesh Ramon, who adds that the fact that one may travel 200 meters and come across totally distinct geological formations is a significant bonus.
The retrieval of a variety of unique rocks and other discoveries will be needed in any actual expedition – something that may be done here with great ease. Indeed, according to Grömer, the main aim of the astronauts is to mimic the hunt for life on Mars by first looking for signs of water and then collecting rock samples that would hopefully aid in the identification of any life forms that may exist.
With ideal timing, the journal Science released an analysis of pictures acquired by the Mars rover Perseverance on Thursday that supports the hypothesis that the planet’s totally dry Jezero Crater was really a calm lake nourished by a few rivers 3.7 billion years ago. This finding has prompted experts to think that the crater’s sediments may include signs of primitive aquatic life.
The hunt for signs of life on the vast swaths of a planet like Mars needs an extreme degree of accuracy. Decisions must be taken about the location of the exploratory vehicle and the location of the crew digging and collecting samples. When there are many rovers and robots, as well as team members, rather than just one, as there is now, the options and choices are numerous, Grömer says. Time is a very valuable resource, and astronauts must understand how to effectively use it. The present expedition at Makhtesh Ramon will assist scientists in prioritizing what has to be done, as well as the best way and time to do it.
The data gathered in the next weeks in Israel by the analog astronauts – as team members engaged in Mars simulations and other technical space missions are referred to – will be sent to an Austrian monitoring station. Certain discoveries may be physically sent there, just as they would be on a genuine Mars expedition. There is a short ten-minute delay in communication with the monitoring station. “You greet someone and wait ten minutes for a response. Not exactly a discussion that flows smoothly,” explains Itai Levy, the project’s director on behalf of the Israel Space Agency at the Science, Technology, and Space Ministry.
The European Space Agency, which is also contemplating sending a trip to Mars, is supporting the project, and NASA will also monitor and use the data generated by the Makhtesh Ramon station. For instance, Grömer notes that the team will perform an experiment to estimate the bandwidth needed to send data from Mars to Earth, and the results will influence choices made in the next decade or two.
Another area of study is the astronauts’ spacesuits. They weigh 50 kilos and are placed on in three hours. The spacesuits took ten years to build and contain sensors that monitor different factors and send data to a monitoring station — with a ten-minute delay, of course. While wearing the suits, astronauts may eat, drink, and remove waste. The suits will be tested during the current mission to verify they can resist solar radiation.
Hotel In Space
In terms of space exploration, humanity is on the brink of ushering in a new age. So far, 600 individuals have flown beyond the earth’s atmosphere, but it is anticipated that this number will increase significantly in the next years as new technologies become available.
Itai Levy, of the Israel Space Agency, believes that space travel is becoming more affordable and accessible. “Such trips will require a significant amount of new knowledge, starting with training prior to the journey and extending to study in fields such as food engineering,” he adds. “If there is going to be a hotel in space, for which there is already a clear business plan, someone will have to work out what the cuisine will be like, how it will be packaged, how it will be furnished, and everything else.”
“All of this will need study that will evaluate such components before they are really put into use,” Levy continues, “and analog research will become a very important area, which we want to create in Israel as well.”
“There are only five or six countries that meet all of these requirements, and Israel is one of them,” he says, referring to the limited number of countries that have the capabilities to simulate space missions at every stage, from planning to designing and manufacturing the necessary equipment to conducting the actual launch.
When you consider the enormous environmental harm that space flight does in terms of both the energy it consumes and the pollutants it emits, it is reasonable to wonder if it is even worthwhile to go to space. Isn’t it preferable to focus our efforts on preserving the Earth rather than on deploying such massive resources to reach Mars?
To that end, Grömer asserts that Mars is the planet that is the most comparable to Earth, and that thus a trip there would lead to a greater knowledge of the origins of life on this world. He believes that humanity will build colonies on the planet Mars in the very distant future. The moon may be 1,000 times closer than the Earth, yet it is incapable of supporting life. According to the Austrian astronomer, the moon serves as a training ground for astronauts, but it is more probable that humans would settle on Mars sometime in the future.