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 Austrian Gernot Grömer, who oversees the mission.
For almost a month and until the end of October, six “analogous astronauts” – expression used to describe people reproducing on Earth the conditions of a long mission in space – from Portugal, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria andIsrael, 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”, ecstatic Alon Tenzer, astronaut 36-year-old Israeli. “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 takes two to three hours to put on.
“Marriage” with Mars
All members 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 ofOman three years ago. This time, it has allied with the Israeli research center D-MARS, to build a base in the form of a polygon and fueled by solar energy.
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 turn out to be essential, as the US space agency, NASA, is planning 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 deal”, 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 for survival on Mars”, says supervisor Gernot Grömer. “It’s like in a marriage except that in a marriage you can leave, on Mars you cannot”, he quips.
“What we are doing here is preparing for the greatest journey our society has ever taken, with Mars and Earth located 380 million kilometers away at their most extreme points.”, he continues. Mr. Grömer is sure: “the first Man who will walk on Mars has already been born”.