Scientists use Mars-like environments to test new tech

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Dawn breaks across a red desert landscape.

This futuristic 2.4-ton inflatable habitat protects its inhabitants from the harsh conditions, but this isn’t Mars, it’s the Arabian Peninsula.

In 2018, scientists field tested technology for a crewed mission to Mars deep in the desert of Oman.

The arid landscape resembles Mars so much that more than 200 scientists from 25 nations chose it as the ideal location for four weeks of experiments.

“There are places which have twins on Mars, areas that are strikingly similar, not only from how they look, but also in terms of their mineralogy – the same grain size distribution – many other aspects as well,” said mission commander, Gernot Groemer.

The deserts of Oman aren’t the only red planet-like locations scientists have used to test Mars-bound technology.

In 2018, as part of the development of Mars-exploring robotics, scientists field tested a UK-built rover prototype – nicknamed “Charlie” – in Spain’s Tabernas Desert, about 30 kilometres north of Almeria.

Tabernas was once used as a film set for several cowboy western movies, including “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”.

Geologists say the rocky surface is rich in clay minerals, which preserves organic materials and therefore may be key to finding evidence of past life on Mars.

“You’ve got the sun moving around you, and you’ve got little gravels that move and it’s all more natural, more chaotic, more dangerous and not as well controlled as you are in a lab,” said Susanne Schwenzer, a senior lecturer at the Open University.

In 2018, Israel simulated life on Mars with a research project in the Negev desert.

A team of scientists spent four days carrying out experiments and living in a specially designed Mars habitat.

D-Mars (Desert Mars Analog Ramon Station) is an Israeli project to test out equipment and gather data that could be used to plan a future manned mission to Mars.

“The reason we picked this specific site is, as you can probably see, it looks a lot like Mars,” said Guy Ron from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A corner of the Utah desert was turned into the rocky surface of Mars in 2015, where students, scientists and others could spend two-weeks living as if they were on the red planet.

They’ve been coming here for more than a decade, hoping their research will someday help put humans on the Martian surface.

The site was chosen because it looks like Mars and is reasonably close to airports. It’s located just outside the tiny community of Hanksville.

Non-profit organization the Mars Society’s mission is to raise awareness and advocate human exploration of Mars. They’re not affiliated with NASA or the U.S. government.

“Really what we’re trying to do is not train individuals, we’re trying to write the field manual,” explained the group’s director, Robert Zubrin.

“Everybody says we should practice before we go to Mars, but some people say we need to practice on the Moon. Well, you could practice on the Moon, but you can do it at 1-10,000th of the cost in the desert in Utah.”

This may look like a normal plant, but these young shoots were grown in soil which has the same mineral composition that’s found on Mars.

In 2013, ecological experts at Wageningen University planted 14 different types of plants in pots filled with artificial Mars, Moon and Earth soil.

The soil had been produced and provided by NASA, who used a mixture of elements that exist on Earth.

And it appeared that the simulated Mars conditions came up trumps.

“I was very surprised when we found out that plants in the Mars soil have grown better than in Earth soil,” said ecologist, Wieger Wamelink.

In 2017, A NASA-backed crew of six people returned to civilization after spending eight months marooned on an island with a habitat like Mars.

They had been part of a study to help scientists at the U.S. space agency understand the psychological impact on astronauts of a long-term mission in space.

The aim was to enable NASA to be able to identify the people who are best suited to long, isolating missions, especially as it plans to send humans to Mars by the 2030s.

“We’ve learned for one thing that conflict, even in the of best teams, is going to arise,” said the project’s lead investigator, Kim Binsted.

“So, what’s really important is to have a crew that, both as individuals and a group, is really resilient, is able to look at that conflict and come back from it.”

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