In 1912, the renowned creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, wrote a series of stories about another mind-bending setting. He replaced the jungles of Africa with the wasteland of Mars, to which a Southern gentleman by the name of John Carter had been mysteriously transported. More than a century later, the red planet is still a destination that sets our imagination on fire.
If nothing goes wrong, in a little more than a decade NASA’s first manned mission will set off for Mars, with a budget of more than $100 billion. Moreover, the Russians are also planning to send a team to the fourth planet from the sun and the Chinese are showing an interest in doing something similar, as are private entities like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which might beat everyone else and accomplish the mission in five years. A round trip to Mars apparently takes more than two years, and will require unprecedented technological and psychological prowess. One small step on the way is being taken as of this week in Makhtesh Ramon, a massive crater located in the Negev, in southern Israel.
Any actual mission to the second-smallest planet in the solar system, a tremendous distance from Earth, must of course be pulled off without a hitch. To get to that point, “Mars simulations” have been attempted in various places around the world. The most advanced of these undertakings was launched Sunday in Makhtesh Ramon, under the auspices of the Austrian Space Forum and the Israel Space Agency.
During their three-week mission, six astronauts from Austria, Germany, Holland, Israel, Portugal and Spain will remain in complete isolation in a unique structure meant to simulate a space station. The astronauts will undertake a variety of experiments that have been selected for the project, in which more than 200 scientists from 25 countries are involved.
Makhtesh Ramon is one of the few places in the world that resemble the conditions on Mars in terms of its soil structure, minerals, remoteness and otherwise extreme conditions. This is not the first Mars simulation that has taken place there – three years ago a similar undertaking took place over a period of four days.
Decked out in a cumbersome spacesuit, astrophysicist Gernot Grömer, director of the Austrian Space Forum, looks like a real-life version of Buzz Lightyear from “Toy Story.” Dr. Grömer tells Haaretz that his team has been working on the Mars-Israel (AMADEE-20) project for four years, and adds excitedly that it is a small miracle that it is actually happening.
Speaking on his first night at the Negev station, Grömer says the simulation is the most advanced in the world in terms of its structure and the research being carried out there. Makhtesh Ramon is one of the only places in the world that resembles Mars so closely – with “twin sites” on the planet, he says, adding that the fact that one can walk 200 meters and come across completely different geological formations, is a real plus. In any real mission, astronauts will be required to bring back a variety of special rocks and other findings – something that can easily be practiced here. Indeed, the astronauts’ primary goal, Grömer says, it to simulate the search for life on Mars by first seeking evidence of water and then by collecting rock samples that can hopefully help in identifying life forms.
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With perfect timing, the journal Science published an analysis last Thursday of images taken by the Mars rover Perseverance, which confirms the theory that 3.7 billion years ago, the completely arid Jezero Crater on the planet was actually a quiet lake fed by a few rivers. This discovery has led scientists to believe that sediments in the crater might contain evidence of early marine life forms.
The search for evidence of life on the huge expanses of a planet like Mars requires a very high level of precision. Decisions have to be made as to where to dispatch the exploratory vehicle, and where to send the team to dig and take samples. When there are a few rovers and robots and also team members, and not just one rover as at present, the possibilities and decisions are many, Grömer explains. Time is an extremely precious resource and astronauts must know how best to take advantage of it. The current mission in Makhtesh Ramon will help scientists prioritize what needs to be done, and how and when to do it.
The information collected in the coming weeks in Israel by the analog astronauts – as team members involved in Mars simulations and other technical space-related experiments are called – will be broadcast to a monitoring station in Austria. Some finds may be sent there physically, exactly as would happen on a real mission to Mars. Communication with the monitoring station involves a brief delay of 10 minutes. “You say hello and wait 10 minutes for a reply. Not quite an easily flowing conversation,” says Itai Levy, director of the project on behalf of the Israel Space Agency in the Science, Technology and Space Ministry.
The project is backed by the European Space Agency, which is also considering launching a mission to Mars, and NASA will also be following developments at the Makhtesh Ramon station and using the data it produces. For example, Grömer says, the team will conduct an experiment to determine the bandwidth required to transmit data from Mars to Earth, and the findings will impact decisions made in 10 or 20 years.
Another direction of research being undertaken involves the astronauts’ spacesuits. They weigh 50 kilograms and it takes three hours to put one on. The spacesuits were under development for 10 years and include sensors that check various parameters and transmit the information to the monitoring station – with a delay of 10 minutes, of course. The astronauts can eat, drink and eliminate waste while wearing the suits, which will be tested in the current mission to ensure that they can withstand solar radiation.
Grömer explains that on bodies like the moon or Mars, dust is almost in a liquid state because the grains are so fine. It can be poisonous, and so a method has to be developed so that the tiny particles do not pollute the space station when the astronauts return to it. Thus, the question of how to properly clean the spacesuits will also be studied in the current simulation, with the powdery Negev soil playing the part of its Mars counterpart. Following conclusion of the project, the durability of the astronauts’ suits will actually be tested in a space mission.
A total of 24 research projects will be carried out in the Negev station. One will be conducted by Reut Sorek Abramovich, chairwoman of the Israel Mars Society, and a researcher at the Dead Sea-Arava Science Center, under the auspices of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“I usually study extreme life environments, typically associated with astrobiology,” Dr. Sorek Abramovich says. “For example, if on Earth they find something living at minus-40 degrees, 11,000 meters below the sea, then maybe there’s a chance of finding life in such extreme environments on other planets.
For more than two years she and Prof. Ziv Reich of the Weizmann Institute have been studying how microbiological pollution can spread through an arid area and an environment that is devoid of human influences – such as the environment on Mars, she adds: “You can’t achieve complete sterility, and if I as a scientist want to find life on Mars, or any other plant, to ensure that I’ve actually found endemic life – I have to know what I’ve brought there.”
Sorek Abramovich’s research has major implications for a Mars mission. “It’s very important to know whether the astronauts are polluting the environment with bacteria they brought with them, among other things because in the transition to extreme environments, when they are exposed to different gravitational conditions, or to cosmic radiation, the genes of the bacteria undergo change, and they become pathogenic,” she says.
A trip to Mars, which would be planned when it and Earth are as close as possible to each other, will take approximately 200 days, which poses a dilemma to scientists who plan it. So that the entire voyage won’t take too long, the astronauts could remain for a relatively brief time on Mars and then be sent quickly back to Earth, taking maximum advantage of the proximity of the planets. Another possibility is to leave the team there for a year until the planetary alignment once again allows a return trip with a reasonable amount of fuel. For his part, Grömer says he believes that after such a lengthy trip, it would be better to spend a longer time on Mars. It sounds challenging, he admits, but the time will pass quickly – and it won’t be boring.
In such a scenario, the astronauts would spend the year in a small structure called a habitat, aka space station. In the Makhtesh Ramon simulation, the analog astronauts will remain in their habitat, in total isolation, for three weeks. Gal Yoffe, director of the project in Israel, says that the station has been planned to be totally off-grid – that is, completely disconnected from any existing infrastructure – and must provide for all the needs of the team. The habitat has been equipped with the capacity, for example, to produce 15,000 kilowatts of electricity per day by means of solar energy, slightly less than an average household. The team’s nutrition will also be studied in an effort to come up with the nutritional components best suited for a prolonged period.
For example, two experiments to be carried out will check the influence of nutrition on microbes in the astronauts’ bodies and on their elimination of waste. The latter is a critical issue, because if waste is not dealt with properly the space station will severely contaminate the environment its residents have come to study. In the present simulation, use will be made of HomeBiogas, an Israeli household biogas digester system.
The prospect of remaining for a year under extreme conditions with a small number of people, after 200 days in very close quarters during the actual trip to Mars, will no doubt involve complex psychological issues. A research project carried out by French scientists during the Makhtesh Ramon simulation will study the levels of the astronauts’ anxiety and depression before, during and after their mission, to understand the mental impact of living in a confined and unfamiliar environment.
More than 600 physical and mental parameters were examined when selecting the six “crew members” of the Negev mission, Grömer says. As in a good marriage, he says, smiling, it is important to choose people who will not miss the opportunity to remain silent at the right moment. Other characteristics that were examined included cooking skills, sense of humor – and whether the individual in question would be interesting enough to spend time with at a bar. Such traits are important among a group of people who will have to spend a long time together.
The only female astronaut in the Makhtesh Ramon experiment is Anika Mehlis from Germany, a graduate in microbiology and environmental engineering, who is doing her doctorate in public health. Mehlis tells Haaretz that she came to the project completely by accident, after reading in a local newspaper about the Austrian Space Forum. Always interested in space, she filled out an application with no expectations, passed all the tests and was selected.
Mehlis’ expertise in microbiology will help her in some of the studies to be carried out in the next three weeks, but she explains that the mission will also check whether people can conduct experiments in fields other than their own. Each member of the team will be able to do all 24 of the experiments, she says – for example, the six will all have to perform ultrasounds on each other, with the aim of reaching the proficiency of a doctor so that if an astronaut on an actual Mars mission is in need of such treatment, the others will know what to do.
The basic training for the mission, Mehlis continues, included lectures, mainly about geology, survival techniques and preparations for conducting each experiment until the methods were known by heart. There was also physical training in preparation for donning the spacesuit, which has to be worn for several hours at a time while venturing out into the Negev’s expanses.
Mehlis says that the fact that she is the only woman on the team – whose members have known each other for some years – has no significance for her, although people always ask her about it. She describes it as something like going camping with friends.
During the conversation with Mehlis, which took place just after she arrived at the Makhtesh Ramon site, she describes her amazement at leaving the habitat and looking up at the star-filled sky. It’s an amazing personal experience, she says, but it’s also something that she believes she is doing for the generations to come.
Hotel in space
Humanity is on the verge of a new era in terms of space exploration. So far, 600 people have flown outside the earth’s atmosphere, but in the years to come that number is expected to rise dramatically.
“Space is becoming much cheaper and accessible and such missions will require quite a lot of new knowledge, beginning with training ahead of the voyage and including research in areas like food engineering,” says Itai Levy, of the Israel Space Agency. “If there’s going to be a hotel in space, for which there is already a concrete business plan, somebody will have to figure out the food, the food packaging, the furniture, and everything else.”
Adds Levy, “all this will require research that will examine such elements before they are actually put into use, and so analog research will become a very central arena, and we want to establish it in Israel as well.”
He notes that there are very few countries that have all the capabilities to simulate space missions, from the stages of planning to designing and manufacturing the requisite equipment, and on to the launch itself: “There are five or six countries that meet all these conditions, and Israel is one of them.
The question arises as to whether traveling to outer space is even important, given the huge environmental damage it causes in terms of the energy it requires and the emissions it creates. Would it not be better to concentrate on saving Earth, instead of investing such enormous resources in reaching Mars? In response, Grömer says that Mars is the planet most similar to Earth and therefore a voyage there will lead to a better understanding of the roots of life here. In the more distant future, he predicts, humans will establish colonies on Mars. The moon may be a 1,000 times closer, but it cannot support life. The moon is like a practice field, according to the Austrian astrophysicist, but it is more likely that someday human beings will live on Mars.