Six analog astronauts from around the world are currently holed up in a sweltering Martian base, replicating what life would be like on the Red Planet.
Only this isn’t Mars. It’s a specialized structure set up by the Israeli Space Agency on Makhtesh Ramon, the 500-meter (1,600-foot) deep, 40 kilometers (25 miles) wide crater in the Negev, Israel’s largest desert region. The pretend dome, housing astronauts from Austria, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain in isolation until the end of the month, will simulate habitat on Mars, in the unique dry and arid climate of the Negev, which has similarities to Martian landscape.
The expedition is part of the 13th Mars Analog Mission of the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF), an international body specializing in analog missions. The OeWF, in collaboration with national and international science and tech institutions from around the world, conducted its first Mars simulation in the Utah desert in April 2006 and has gone on to lead 11 other international experiments. In 2017, the company selected the Negev desert for one of its future simulated missions. Meanwhile, Israel built and launched D-Mars, a space station at the Makhtesh Ramon set up to house analog astronauts specifically trained for spaceflight and technical tests in simulated space environments. The mission, dubbed AMADEE-20, was supposed to take place in 2020, but like many other projects and events, it was postponed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The scouting in Israel, where a delegation from the Austrian Space Forum visits the host country was in March 2017. Back then we had already started figuring out where we can go and how we can establish such an infrastructure and we had the first negotiations with the Israeli Space Agency. Once we decided on those details and who the partners were, we could begin final negotiations. We set up a Memorandum of Understanding to define our cooperation. says OeWF’s Sophie Gruber. She is part of the leadership team at the mission support center in Innsbruck. She manages projects, takes care of planning, and schedules everything for this specific mission together with Dr. Gernot Groemer, director of the Austrian Space Forum.
Five men and one woman make up the team currently conducting more than 20 experiments in the Negev, including two in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA.) They are supported by about 30 to 40 people at any given time at the Mission Support Center in Innsbruck Austria emulating the “ground segment” of an actual Mars mission, including operation teams, flight planners, remote science support, and the infrastructure necessary to coordinate a complex set of experiments in the fields of engineering, geoscience, and human factors. More than 200 researchers from 25 countries are also involved in this international project under Austrian leadership.
The Israeli astronaut on this expedition is 36-year old Alon Tenzer, a veteran of the Israeli Air Force with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, Computer Science, and Aviation Science at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Master of Science in Neuroscience at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He was also a researcher and data scientist at the Weizmann Institute. Currently working as a senior AI engineer in Singapore building AI-based solutions for various companies, according to his bio, he has been an analog astronaut since 2019 and has trained for this mission after being selected from over 100 people who applied for the chance to be part of the simulation.
“We are six people working in a tight space under a lot of pressure to do a lot of tests There are bound to be challenges,” he told Reuters just before the team went into isolation. “But I trust my crew that we are able to overcome those challenges.”
Why the Negev?
Gruber tells NoCamels that the most obvious reason that the OeWF chose the Negev as a base for a Mars mission simulation is that “when you go and stand there, it looks like Mars.”
“We have comparison pictures from the Curiosity Rover and pictures we took — if you don’t see any outcrops or anything, you cannot know which is Mars and which is Israel,” she adds.
The second reason is that there are geological features on the Ramon Crater, which can also be found on Mars. “If we want to investigate how we take geological samples, how we process geological samples, to look for signs of life, for instance — the Ramon Crater is a really great place to do so.”
Then, there is the possibility for an isolated mission. “[In the Negev,] we are not next to a big city and we are not in the middle of some kind of infrastructure, so we can have the isolated feeling, which is really important for the human factor experiments.”
Scientists want to make sure that the participants in isolation will be able to avoid mistakes that would endanger real astronauts. They will research human behavior and look for signs of poor mental and physical health.
The astronauts have been training for the past two years and have had several training weekends where they came together to learn geology, engineering, first aid, and astronomy, Gruber explains. The participants all had to pass tests that proved their mental and physical fitness.
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They also complete questionnaires about their daily feelings and activities inside the habitat, asking them to describe their moods. While she would not go into detail to respect the privacy of the astronauts, Gruber noted that many of them were tired and sleep-deprived because they had so many things to do and the support center had to be patient and understanding toward their plight.
“[The isolation] is not something we’re used to — probably more now due to the pandemic — but it’s something we have to learn to cope with. It affects the day-to-day handling of simple tasks. This is quite important to what we are doing here because we have the chance to actually develop the strategies necessary to cope with a long installation. Once we go to Mars, we should know what happens and how we can deal with it,” Gruber says.
Challenges of a Mars mission
While the red dirt and rocky landscape of the desert closely resemble the Red Planet’s rough terrain, the expedition is still a human-developed project on Earth. One of the biggest challenges for the astronauts is adapting to the hot, dry climate as they head outside for extravehicular activity (EVA) in elaborate 110 lb space suits built by the OeWF, and perform experiments with autonomous drones and solar-powered vehicles.
While the temperature on Mars is a frigid -81 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures in the Negev are 77 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit on average.
“One challenge that we had to adapt to was how hot it got in the desert We had to start earlier and shift our daily routine quite a lot to accommodate for different constellations of sun shadow on sample places where we wanted to go,” Gruber says, “I think that’s something very valuable as well for future missions to Mars because you never know what to expect. Human beings like to have a routine, but it’s not like that. You have to be able to adapt very fast to new situations.”
Another challenge the group faced was navigating the terrain. Gruber explains that the group had satellite images of a certain location, as they might have on Mars. The astronauts sent out drones to explore the area before they sent out the astronauts.
“It turned out that the drones predicted many paths were traversable but when the astronauts came to the location, it was not. So we had to change the path and areas where we wanted to go became unreachable. This is definitely something that could happen on Mars.” she admits.
The problem with that is that communication from Mars to Earth is not instantaneous. In fact, it takes 10 minutes for a text message from Mars to reach a mission control center on Earth, Gruber says. The mission support center in Innsbruck simulated this communication challenge by creating an artificial time delay through a server.
“It makes a huge difference, if you’re in the middle of the desert if you have a question about an experiment, and you have to relate to Earth, it takes 10 minutes. Then we send a message back to answer you and it takes 10 minutes again. So analog astronauts in the desert are actually waiting for half an hour for answers to their scenario.”
When the isolation phase ends on October 31, Gruber says she wants to know what went right, what went wrong, and what experiments are actually doable or need a redesign.
“I can talk for hours about the questions I want to ask them,” she says. “I want to know how they felt, how comfortable they were in the habitat in isolation. And communication-wise, if they were missing some communication from Earth or if they would have liked more communications or less.”
“There are so many questions,” she adds.