The race to land humans on Mars is on again – and at an accelerated pace. Superpowers including China and the United States have declared their intentions to land astronauts on the Red Planet, as have private entrepreneurs who are taking the challenge seriously, among them Elon Musk.
A number of Israeli scientists have been involved in this global effort as well, including the designers of a spacesuit that would protect Mars-bound astronauts from dangerous radiation on their long trip. And now Israel has been chosen to host an international Mars simulation project, which has been conducted in a number of countries over the past 13 years.
As part of the project, due to take place next year, a solar energy-powered geodesic dome will be built near Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev Desert in southern Israel, complete with life-support systems, a research station and communications equipment. Cut off from the rest of the world for three weeks, the six “astronauts” living inside will only be able to move outside the habitat while wearing spacesuits, and will use vehicles similar to the “rovers” planned for the real Mars journey while conducting their research. Two of the astronauts will be Israelis.
Announcement of Israel’s participation in the global, Austrian-led project was timed to coincide with this year's Israel Space Week, from January 27 to 31.
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The Science, Technology and Space Ministry says that Mitzpeh Ramon shares certain characteristics with parts of Mars – in terms of geology, topography, aridity, general appearance and isolation – that will enable the six participants to study a number of scientific phenomena related to life on the planet.
The simulation is scheduled to take place in November 2020 and the participants were chosen after a lengthy process. Criteria included physical and mental health and fitness, age (between 25 and 45), a master’s degree in a scientific field (or relevant military background), fluency in English and technological, scientific or engineering experience. Out of 83 Israeli candidates, four made the short list and were sent to Austria for further tests, along with 40 other candidates from all over the world.
Among those chosen were Israelis Alon Tenzer and Liad Yosef. Tenzer has a master’s degree in neurobiology from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and is now involved in artificial intelligence research in Singapore. Yosef is a graduate of the International Space University in France, and has a bachelor’s degree in math from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and another B.A. in economics from Tel Aviv University. One of them will be an active participant in the simulation experiment, while the other will serve as an alternate; a decision on this has yet to be made. All participants will undergo further testing over the next year, including interviews, simulation exercises, group-dynamics training and suitability exams.
The Mars simulation is the flagship of the Austrian Space Forum, a civilian network of aerospace professionals who are involved in the AMADEE research program. Last year the forum conducted its experiment in Oman, but it was different than the one planned for Israel.
The 2020 project is not the first Mars simulation conducted in Israel – or in Mitzpeh Ramon, for that matter. In February 2018, a similar, four-day program called D-MARS was undertaken there, under the auspices of the Weizmann Institute's nonprofit Davidson Institute of Science Education, with six volunteers called the “Ramonauts” (after Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who was killed in the Columbia space flight disaster) – at the same time as the simulation was going on in Oman. Participants in both programs were in contact with each other and compared their findings.