- In Israel, six analog astronauts are living and working in a small structure to simulate life on Mars.
- The month-long mission aims to help scientists learn how to avoid mistakes that would endanger real astronauts.
- Scientists are monitoring the group for signs of poor mental and physical health.
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Mars poses all sorts of danger to humans: radiation exposure, below-freezing temperatures, and a thin atmosphere with only traces of oxygen. If astronauts eventually visit the planet, any mistakes in the mission plan could be fatal.
So scientists are conducting simulations on Earth to better anticipate what could go wrong.
For nearly all of October, six analog astronauts - the term for people who help simulate life on other planets - are living in a small base camp and carrying out experiments in Israel's Negev Desert. The red dirt and rocky terrain closely resemble the Martian landscape, but temperatures are far more palatable: around 25 to 30 degrees Celsius. That's compared to -62 degrees Celsius, on average, on the red planet.
The group's living quarters, a 1,300-square-foot, solar-powered structure, also serve as their laboratory. Inside, the analog astronauts sleep in bunk beds and have access to a small kitchen. If they venture out, they must wear mock spacesuits.
The project, called AMADEE-20, is a joint effort between the Austrian Space Forum, Israel Space Agency, and local Israeli research center D-MARS. It was originally scheduled to take place in 2020 but got postponed due to the pandemic.
The analogu astronauts, along with a team of engineers and scientists, will conduct more than 20 experiments in total. Since no human has ever been to the specific site they're studying, the team will observe whether bacteria from their bodies and equipment contaminates local microbes - a sign that it might do the same to potential life forms on Mars. They'll also test new technology like self-navigating drones and wind- and solar-powered vehicles that map the desert terrain.
"We have the motto of fail fast, fail cheap, and have a steep learning curve," Gernot Groemer, director of the Austrian Space Forum, told Reuters. "Because for every mistake we make here on Earth, we hope we don't repeat it on Mars."
Scientists are monitoring how the astronauts live and work in close quarters
The six analog astronauts (five men and one woman) hail from different countries: Austria, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Their mission began on October 4 and lasts until October 31.
The participants all had to pass tests that proved their mental and physical fitness to be chosen for the simulation. But that doesn't mean the experiment will be easy. Just the equipment they wear outside weighs around 110 pounds. The suits are equipped with cameras, microphones, and individual breathing systems.
What's more, a key part of the mission is to observe how the astronauts handle living and working together in cramped conditions.
Scientists are watching the analog astronauts on camera to see how they assess risks, address stress, and collaborate as a team. They're also monitoring the astronauts' vital signs and bowel movements for indicators of poor health. In addition, the astronauts are asked to fill out weekly questionnaires that gauge their levels of anxiety and depression.
"The group's cohesion and their ability to work together are crucial for surviving on Mars," Groemer told Agence France-Presse. "It's like a marriage, except in a marriage you can leave, but on Mars you can't."
NASA hopes to send humans to Mars in the 2030s
AMADEE-20 isn't the first attempt to mimic a human mission to Mars on Earth. NASA has been conducting studies in its own simulated Mars habitat in Hawaii, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, since 2013. The Austrian Space Forum has also led 12 other Mars simulations in locations including Morocco, Spain, Oman, and Utah.
"I believe the very first human to walk on Mars is already born and we are the ship-builders to enable this journey," Groemer told AFP.
NASA hopes to launch its first human mission to Mars in the 2030s.
Earlier this year, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested that his company could get there sooner, landing a crewed spaceship on Mars as early as 2026. But many scientists have questioned whether that timeline is realistic.
At the moment, the most advanced mission to Mars is that of NASA's Perseverance rover, which is scouring the red planet for signs of ancient alien life.
Perseverance is also testing out samples of spacesuit material to see how they hold up against Mars' radiation and dust.
Additionally, the rover is equipped with an experimental device that takes in carbon dioxide, splits the molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide, then spits out breathable oxygen. In April, it successfully produced oxygen from the Martian atmosphere - though only enough to help an astronaut breathe for 10 minutes (about 5 grams). A full year on Mars would likely require about 1 metric ton of oxygen (2,200 pounds) to sustain four astronauts, according to NASA.
Of course, even if humans could survive on the Martian surface, transporting them there and back would be an immense challenge. The one-way journey takes about seven months, since Earth and Mars are roughly 300 million miles apart. The farthest humans have traveled in space is nearly 249,000 miles more than five decades ago.
Plus, no robot we've ever sent to Mars has returned to Earth. Scientists are still working to develop technology that could make that feat possible.