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Astronauts ‘touch down’ in Negev’s Ramon Crater after mission to ‘Mars’

After 21 days on Mars, six astronauts emerge smiling and waving into an overcast afternoon.

That was the scene that played out Sunday at the Ramon Crater, in the middle of Israel’s Negev Desert, though in reality the six scientists had never left Earth.

For a month they carried out simulated experiments designed to bring humans closer to travel to the Red Planet, including three weeks of total isolation inside a specially constructed habitat — which they could only exit while wearing a full space suit.

The rocky rust-colored landscape of the southern Ramon Crater and its temperate conditions were selected as a close earthbound substitution for the conditions on Mars.

The month-long program, titled AMADEE-20, capped off four years of collaboration between hundreds of researchers from 25 countries, including a significant delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The initiative was spearheaded by the Austrian Space Forum in cooperation with the Israel Space Agency, through the Israeli organization D-MARS, established in 2017 to facilitate the program.

The six analog astronauts — so called because they operate in settings analogous to space — spent three weeks sealed off from the outside world, able to communicate with outsiders only via a time delay, eating only the food they brought with them, showering with limited water and fixing any problems that arose, including a broken toilet, without outside help.

The six researchers from six countries, including Israel’s Alon Tenzer, conducted a wide variety of experiments across many different fields to move closer to one day sending a manned mission to Mars.

“The Ramon Crater is a formidable example of a Mars analog on Earth,” Gernot Gromer, the director of the Austrian Space Forum, told reporters on Sunday afternoon at a ceremony marking the program’s completion. “It has both geological and ecological twins on Mars — it has areas that look really really stunningly similar.”

Gromer said that while the six analog astronauts “know they were not on Mars, they were not fully on Earth either.” The habitat built for the experiment is “the most modern, most complex Mars simulation station on this planet,” he added.

João Lousada of Portugal, who served as the six-person team’s field commander, told reporters shortly after exiting the habitat that he believed their findings and experiences have brought humans closer to visiting Mars.

“I think we took many steps in the right direction; we learned many things that will get us one step closer to Mars,” he said. “Many of the technologies we tested here, many of the procedures, the experiments — all of this is contributing in the future to get us to Mars. So I’m really confident that we have made an important step here.”

Scientists believe that human exploration of Mars — which until now has only been witnessed via rovers and robots and unmanned spacecraft — is not too far in the future.

“We believe the very first human to walk on Mars has already been born,” said Gromer, “and might be just be going to an elementary school in Tel Aviv or in Shanghai or in New York.”

Public and private ventures are racing toward Mars.

Both former US president Barack Obama and SpaceX founder Elon Musk declared that humans would walk on the Red Planet in a few decades. Meanwhile, new challengers like China have joined the United States and Russia in space with an ambitious, if vague, Mars program.

While the six analog astronauts were firmly earthbound, the experience was still an intense and isolating one. Confined to the 120-square-meter, specially built habitat, they were largely cut off from the outside world, able to communicate with others only via a 10-minute delay.

Anika Mehlis of Germany, the only female on the astronaut team, said the experience was a very realistic one.

“It’s really not difficult to get into this mindset,” she said. “In the morning when you wake up and look outside the small windows, and you see this red landscape, and there’s nobody there, and you can’t go outside, and the only communications are with a time delay, you start to feel really isolated, and really far away pretty soon.

“Of course, you still know that you’re not on Mars,” she added, “but you can really imagine what it would feel like.”

The astronauts conducted a wide variety of experiments and tested procedures developed by researchers at more than a dozen universities, with each member of the team bringing unique expertise to the program.

The experiments included 3D printing of aerospace-quality plastics, testing out of specially designed robotic rovers, and monitoring the physical and psychological effects of the mission on each member of the team.

A significant portion of their work included testing the simulated space suit, designed to protect astronauts from the unlivable conditions on the Red Planet.

In order to account for the change in gravity on Mars, the space suit — which would weigh more than 120 kilograms during a real mission — weighed just 50 kilograms, still an enormous weight that effectively limited the crew’s outdoor activities.

Alon Shikar, the vice president of D-MARS and the architect who designed the habitat, said the astronauts’ experiences will help streamline the design of future space habitats.

“Now, after the experiment is over, we can get the full picture of the places that the astronauts used each day and the places that they didn’t use,” Shikar told reporters on a tour of the compact structure. “Now we can understand better and better how we can make this place work in the most fluid way.”

The Austrian Space Forum has run 12 other Mars analog missions, all aimed at getting humans closer to one day landing on the surface of the Red Planet.

“Every large journey no matter how far it goes starts with the first step,” said Gromer, just minutes before the astronauts exited the habitat. “What you see here is indeed, the very first step… in embarking on a journey yet to come.”

Source: Amy Spiro – TOI