By Pablo Duer
Mitzpe Ramon, Israel, Oct 31 (EFE).- Six astronauts have spent three weeks isolated at a simulated Martian base in a crater in the middle of Israel’s Negev Desert, where they conducted assorted experiments as part of a program to further preparations for a mission to Mars, albeit at some undetermined date in the future.
In the middle a red, dry, rocky nothingness, with mountains on the horizon, and where the only sound is that of the whistling wind and the sun beats down violently, mankind has now taken one more step on the long road to the Red Planet.
The conclusion of the AMADEE-20 mission, which had been postponed by the coronavirus pandemic and in which some 200 people from more than 25 countries participated, represents the most recent experiment by the Austrian Space Forum, one of the main institutions devoted to anticipating – and learning how to deal with – obstacles to a future interplanetary manned mission.
“This is a milestone, it’s a first step on the way to Mars,” Gernot Gromer, the director of the Forum, told EFE, adding that this 13th such mission mounted by his institution was the “largest, most exhaustive and most complex” such mission “that human beings have seen.”
Regarding the selection of the Mitzpe Ramon crater, 40 kilometers (25 miles) wide and 500 meters (1,640 feet) deep, Gromer said that it is “one of the best places on Earth to simulate Mars” and that although it shows similar geological characteristics, there are obvious differences. For instance, the air on Earth is obviously breathable and the daily temperatures and the force of gravity are quite different from those features of the Red Planet.
In contrast to previous such missions, the base at which the astronauts were isolated was completely sealed off, making it possible for them to work in depth on psychological questions that would emerge on a years-long Mars mission and group dynamics, quite apart from the scientific experiments the team conducted in the areas of biology, medicine, geology and engineering.
The six-person team – made up of one person each from Portugal, Spain, Germany, The Netherlands, Israel and Austria – remained in contact with a “Mission Control” group in Innsbruck, Austria, but they could communicate only by text messages with a 10-minute time delay, thus replicating the delay that will be experienced in Earth-Mars communications.
“We’ve had a mission that combines isolation and the psychological burden that that implies, with very advanced technologies on the (virtual learning environments) for spacewalks,” Spaniard Iñigo Muñoz-Elorza, the mission’s second-in-command, told EFE after leaving the habitat without having to wear a spacesuit for the first time in three weeks.
“Our spacesuit simulator is one of the most advanced for analogous missions and we’ve also had the support of several rovers and drones to fly around and to be able to make a progressive map of the zone around the habitat, where we then did some science,” the mission No. 2, who now has been on a total of three simulated Mars missions, added.
The habitat for the mission was built by Israel’s D-Mars company in collaboration with the Israel Space Agency and consists of two structures – one with six bunks, a small kitchen and a small living room and the other a little larger, loaded with computers, cables, communications equipment and scientific devices, where the team conducted its experiments, and outfitted with a 3D printer to fashion spare parts for equipment that could break down.
According to Portugal’s Joao Lousada, the mission commander, the focus was on testing the spacesuit – weighing 50 kg (110 pounds) and which required two hours to get into – testing procedures for geological exploration and the detection of living organisms, and investigating the amount of contamination that the astronauts’ activities created within the habitat and in the surrounding area.
“This kind of mission is important because it allows us to test the equipment, the experiments and procedures that we want to use one day on Mars, to find out beforehand here on Earth all the problems, all the things that could go wrong, before sending our missions to Mars,” he told EFE.
Regarding the departure of the first real manned exploratory mission to Mars, Lousada said that this will depend on international will and cooperation, but he admitted that, on the basis of existing technology, it should not have to be delayed by more than 20 or 30 years.