In desert of Oman, a gateway to life on Mars

Members of the Austrian Space Forum inspect a site in Oman’s Dhofar desert, near the southern Marmul outpost, on Oct. 29, 2017, in preparation for a four-week Mars simulation mission due to begin next year. (AFP/Giuseppe Cacace)
Updated 30 October 2017
0

In desert of Oman, a gateway to life on Mars

DHOFAR, Oman: In sunglasses and jumpsuits, a crew of European test astronauts is laying the groundwork for a Mars simulation in the barren expanse of the Omani desert, a terrestrial mission intended to pave the way to the red planet.
The “analog astronauts” of the Austrian Space Forum — a volunteer-based collective — have arrived in Oman to begin preparations for a four-week simulation mission due to begin next year.
Touching down at Marmul Airport, a remote outpost used by oil workers, the five-person advance team loaded up on sunscreen and, with their Omani counterparts dressed in crisp white gowns and colorful turbans, boarded four-by-fours and plunged into the desert under the blazing sun.
Oil installations receded into the background and only rocky plateaus and ancient sandy riverbeds remained as far as the eye could see. Maps were spread on the hoods of the vehicles.
“We want to simulate Mars on Earth and so we need a place that looks as much like Mars as possible. And we found it here in Oman,” Alexander Soucek, the lead flight director of the AMADEE-18 mission, told AFP.
The team was on a quest to pin down the location of the base camp for the simulation, to be held in February.
“Here the humans coming from Earth will land after six months travel through space... Simulated, of course!” Soucek said upon arrival at the chosen site.
“When we fly to Mars in reality, we will need as many questions as possible already answered so that we are really well prepared.”


During the mission, the team will carry out a series of experiments, from growing greens without soil in an inflatable hydroponic greenhouse to testing an autonomous “tumbleweed” rover, which maps out terrain while propelled by the wind.
“There are very few groups on this planet testing these procedures and doing these high-fidelity simulations,” said Soucek. “We are one of them.”
The team hopes the simulation will help nail down future tools and procedures for the first manned mission to Mars.
Field commander Gernot Groemer predicts a Mars mission may be carried out by a collective of the United States, Russia, Europe and possibly China relatively soon — with the first human to set foot on the red planet maybe already born.
“What we’re going to see here in about 100 days is going to be a sneak preview into the future,” said Groemer, describing a U-shaped encampment where “an exquisitely compiled suite of experiments” will take place.
Those include experiments designed to test human factors that could affect pioneering astronauts, such as mental fatigue and depression.
Just 15 people will enter the isolation phase, when their only way to troubleshoot snags will be through remote communication with “earth” in Austria.


The total cost of the project is expected to be around half-a-million euros, covered mainly by private donations from industry partners.
Critics of such space missions see the massive amounts of money as a luxury in a time of austerity measures in Europe and depressed oil prices in the Gulf.
The Austrian Space Forum argues the money is not being “thrown into space” and that the tools being developed are not only useful for life on a distant planet but for our own.
“Most people every day use a handful of space technologies without even knowing it,” said Groemer, listing off satellite imagery, fuel injection for cars and breast cancer screening software.
On Monday the Austrian Space Forum signed a memorandum of understanding with Oman, making the sultanate’s selection as the mission site official.
For the Omani Astronomical Society, which invited the Austrian Space Forum, the mission is a way to inspire the country’s youth.
A series of lectures is taking place at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, geared especially toward hundreds of young students.
Al-Khattab Ghalib Al Hinai, deputy head of the steering committee for AMADEE-18 and vice chairman of Oman’s State Council, says a high school team will even participate, conducting a geophysics experiment to find water.
“The whole idea is to ignite imagination within the young society in Oman, female and male, and I hope this journey of discovery will help them to always search for the unknown,” the geologist said.
“I hope to see astrophysicists in Oman, I hope to see geologists. I hope to see astronauts in the future.”


YouTube, under pressure for problem content, takes down 58 mln videos in quarter

Updated 39 min 2 sec ago
0

YouTube, under pressure for problem content, takes down 58 mln videos in quarter

  • Google added thousands of moderators this year, expanding to more than 10,000, in hopes of reviewing user reports faster

WASHINGTON: YouTube took down more than 58 million videos and 224 million comments during the third quarter based on violations of its policies, the unit of Alphabet Inc’s Google said on Thursday in an effort to demonstrate progress in suppressing problem content.
Government officials and interest groups in the United States, Europe and Asia have been pressuring YouTube, Facebook Inc. and other social media services to quickly identify and remove extremist and hateful content that critics have said incite violence.
The European Union has proposed online services should face steep fines unless they remove extremist material within one hour of a government order to do so.
An official at India’s Ministry of Home Affairs speaking on the condition of anonymity on Thursday said social media firms had agreed to tackle authorities’ requests to remove objectionable content within 36 hours.
This year, YouTube began issuing quarterly reports about its enforcement efforts.
As with past quarters, most of the removed content was spam, YouTube said.
Automated detection tools help YouTube quickly identify spam, extremist content and nudity. During September, 90 percent of the nearly 10,400 videos removed for violent extremism or 279,600 videos removed for child safety issues received fewer than 10 views, according to YouTube.
But YouTube faces a bigger challenge with material promoting hateful rhetoric and dangerous behavior.
Automated detection technologies for those policies are relatively new and less efficient, so YouTube relies on users to report potentially problematic videos or comments. This means that the content may be viewed widely before being removed.
Google added thousands of moderators this year, expanding to more than 10,000, in hopes of reviewing user reports faster. YouTube declined to comment on growth plans for 2019.
It has described pre-screening every video as unfeasible.
The third-quarter removal data for the first time revealed the number of YouTube accounts Google disabled for either having three policy violations in 90 days or committing what the company found to be an egregious violation, such as uploading child pornography.
YouTube removed about 1.67 million channels and all of the 50.2 million videos that were available from them.
Nearly 80 percent of the channel takedowns related to spam uploads, YouTube said. About 13 percent concerned nudity, and 4.5 percent child safety.
YouTube said users post billions of comments each quarter. It declined to disclose the overall number of accounts that have uploaded videos, but said removals were also a small fraction.
In addition, about 7.8 million videos were removed individually for policy violations, in line with the previous quarter.