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
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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.”


Fall of top US scientists points to ethics gap in research

In this Dec. 6, 2016 file photo, Brian Wansink speaks during an interview in the produce section of a supermarket in Ithaca, N.Y. (AP)
Updated 24 September 2018
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Fall of top US scientists points to ethics gap in research

  • Links between a doctor leading a clinical trial and manufacturers of drugs or medical equipment used in the study can influence the methodology and ultimately the results

WASHINGTON: Three prominent US scientists have been pushed to resign over the past 10 days after damning revelations about their methods, a sign of greater vigilance and decreasing tolerance for misconduct within the research community.
The most spectacular fall concerned Jose Baselga, chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He authored hundreds of articles on cancer research.
Investigative journalism group ProPublica and The New York Times revealed on September 8 that Baselga failed to disclose in dozens of research articles that he had received millions of dollars from pharmaceutical and medical companies.
Such declarations are generally required by scientific journals.
Links between a doctor leading a clinical trial and manufacturers of drugs or medical equipment used in the study can influence the methodology and ultimately the results.
But journals don’t themselves verify the thoroughness of an author’s declarations.
Caught up in the scandal, Baselga resigned on September 13.

Next came the case of Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at the prestigious Cornell University.
He made his name thanks to studies that garnered plenty of media attention, including on pizza, and the appetites of children.
His troubles began last year when scientific sleuths discovered anomalies and surprisingly positive results in dozens of his articles.
In February, BuzzFeed published messages in which Wansink encouraged a researcher to extract from her data results more likely to go “viral.”
After a yearlong inquiry, Cornell announced on Thursday that Wansink committed “academic misconduct in his research and scholarship,” describing a litany of problems with his results and methods.
He is set to resign at the end of the academic year, but from now on will no longer teach there.
Wansink denied all fraud, but 13 of his articles have already been withdrawn by journals.
In the final case, Gilbert Welch, a professor of public health at Dartmouth College, resigned last week.
The university accused him of plagiarism in an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the most respected American medical journal.

“The good news is that we are finally starting to see a lot of these cases become public,” said Ivan Oransky co-founder of the site Retraction Watch, a project of the Center for Scientific Integrity that keeps tabs on retractions of research articles in thousands of journals.
Oransky told AFP that what has emerged so far is only the tip of the iceberg.
The problem, he said, is that scientists, and supporters of science, have often been unwilling to raise such controversies “because they’re afraid that talking about them will decrease trust in science and that it will aid and abet anti-science forces.”
But silence only encourages bad behavior, he argued. According to Oransky, more transparency will in fact only help the public to better comprehend the scientific process.
“At the end of the day, we need to think about science as a human enterprise, we need to remember that it’s done by humans,” he said. “Let’s remember that humans make mistakes, they cut corners, sometimes worse.”
Attention has long focused on financial conflicts of interest, particularly because of the influence of the pharmaceutical industry.
But the Wansink case illustrates that other forms of conflict, including reputational, are equally important. Academic careers are largely built on how much one publishes and in which journals.
As a result, researchers compete to produce positive, new and clear results — but work that produces negative results or validates previous findings should also be rewarded, argued Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who heads the pro-transparency Center for Open Science.
“Most of the work when we’re at the boundary of science is messy, has exceptions, has things that don’t quite fit,” he explained, while “the bad part of the incentives environment is that the reward system is all about the result.”
While moves toward more transparency have gathered momentum over the past decade, in particular among publishers of research articles, there is still a long way to go, said Nosek.
“Culture change is hard,” he argued, adding: “Universities and medical centers are the slowest actors.”