Mars on Earth: Exploration of red planet starts in Oman’s remote Dhofar desert

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Two scientists test space suits and a geo-radar for use in a future Mars mission in the Dhofar desert of southern Oman. (AP)
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João Lousada, who is a flight controller for the International Space Station, wears an experimental space suit during a simulation of a future Mars mission in the Dhofar desert of southern Oman. (AP)
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Above, Gernot Groemer, commander of the AMADEE-18 Mars simulation in the Dhofar desert of southern Oman. (AP)
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The sun rises over a 2.4-ton inflated habitat used by the AMADEE-18 Mars simulation in the Dhofar desert of southern Oman. The desolate desert in southern Oman, near the borders of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, resembles Mars so much. (AP)
Updated 08 February 2018
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Mars on Earth: Exploration of red planet starts in Oman’s remote Dhofar desert

DHOFAR DESERT, Oman: Dressed in stark white spacesuits against the backdrop of a desolate, auburn terrain of stony plains and sand dunes, two scientists test a geo-radar by dragging the flat box across the rocky sand.
Communication from mission command in the Alps is delayed 10 minutes, so when the geo-radar stops working, the two walk back to their all-terrain vehicles and radio colleagues nearby at base camp for guidance.
But this isn’t the Red Planet — it’s the Arabian Peninsula.
The desolate desert in southern Oman, near the borders of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, resembles Mars so much that more than 200 scientists from 25 nations chose it as their location for the next four weeks, to field-test technology for a manned mission to Mars.
Public and private ventures are racing toward Mars — both former President Barack Obama and SpaceX founder Elon Musk declared humans would walk on the Red Planet in a few decades.
New challengers like China are joining the US and Russia in space with an ambitious, if vague, Mars program. Aerospace corporations like BlueOrigin have published schematics of future bases, ships and suits.
The successful launch of SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket this week “puts us in a completely different realm of what we can put into deep space, what we can send to Mars,” said analog astronaut Kartik Kumar.
The next step to Mars, he says, is to tackle non-engineering problems like medical emergency responses and isolation.
“These are things I think can’t be underestimated.” Kumar said.
While cosmonauts and astronauts are learning valuable spacefaring skills on the International Space Station — and the US is using virtual reality to train scientists — the majority of work to prepare for interplanetary expeditions is being done on Earth.
And where best to field-test equipment and people for the journey to Mars but on some of the planet’s most forbidding spots?
Seen from space, the Dhofar Desert is a flat, brown expanse. Few animals or plants survive in the desert expanses of the Arabian Peninsula, where temperatures can top 125 degrees Fahrenheit, or 51 degrees Celsius.
On the eastern edge of a seemingly endless dune is the Oman Mars Base: a giant 2.4-ton inflated habitat surrounded by shipping containers turned into labs and crew quarters.
There are no airlocks.
The desert’s surface resembles Mars so much, it’s hard to tell the difference, Kumar said, his spacesuit caked in dust. “But it goes deeper than that: the types of geomorphology, all the structures, the salt domes, the riverbeds, the wadis, it parallels a lot of what we see on Mars.”
The Omani government offered to host the Austrian Space Forum’s next Mars simulation during a meeting of the United Nation’s Committee On the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
Gernot Groemer, commander of the Oman Mars simulation and a veteran of 11 science missions on Earth, said the forum quickly accepted.
Scientists from across the world sent ideas for experiments and the mission, named AMADEE-18, quickly grew to 16 scientific experiments, such as testing a “tumbleweed” whip-fast robot rover and a new space suit called Aouda.
The cutting-edge spacesuit, weighing about 50 kilograms, is called a “personal spaceship” because one can breathe, eat and do hard science inside it. The suit’s visor displays maps, communications and sensor data. A blue piece of foam in front of the chin can be used to wipe your nose and mouth.
“No matter who is going to this grandest voyage of our society yet to come, I think a few things we learn here will be actually implemented in those missions,” Groemer said.
The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik ignited a space race between Moscow and Washington to land a crew on the Moon.
But before the US got there first, astronauts like Neil Armstrong trained suspended on pulleys to simulate one-sixth of Earth’s gravity.
Hostile environments from Arizona to Siberia were used to fine-tune capsules, landers, rovers and suits — simulating otherworldly dangers to be found beyond Earth. Space agencies call them “analogues” because they resemble extraterrestrial extremes of cold and remoteness.
“You can test systems on those locations and see where the breaking points are, and you can see where things start to fail and which design option you need to take in order to assure that it does not fail on Mars,” said João Lousada, one of the Oman simulation’s deputy field commanders who is a flight controller for the International Space Station.
Faux space stations have been built underwater off the coast of Florida, on frigid dark deserts of Antarctica, and in volcanic craters in Hawaii, according to “Packing For Mars,” a favorite book among many Mars scientists, written by Mary Roach.
“Terrestrial analogs are a tool in the toolkit of space exploration, but they are not a panacea,” said Scott Hubbard, known as “Mars Czar” back when he lead the US space agency’s Mars program. Some simulations have helped developed cameras, rovers, suits and closed-loop life-support systems, he said.
NASA used the Mojave Desert to test rovers destined for the Red Planet but they also discovered much about how humans can adapt.
“Human’s adaptability in an unstructured environment is still far, far better than any robot we can send to space,” Hubbard said, adding that people, not just robots, are the key to exploring Mars.
The European Space Agency’s list of “planetary analogues” includes projects in Chile, Peru, South Africa, Namibia, Morocco, Italy, Spain, Canada, Antarctica, Russia, China, Australia, India, Germany, Norway, Iceland, and nine US states. Next Thursday, Israeli scientists are to run a shorter simulation in a nature preserve called D Mars.
However, there remain so many unknowns that simulations “are not in any way a replacement for being there,” Hubbard said.
The Oman team’s optimism is unflinching.
“The first person to walk on Mars has in fact already been born, and might be going to elementary school now in Oman, or back in Europe, in the US or China,” Lousada said.


Scientists amazed as Canadian permafrost thaws 70 years early

General view of a landscape of partially thawed Arctic permafrost near Mould Bay, Canada, in this handout photo released June 18, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 19 June 2019
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Scientists amazed as Canadian permafrost thaws 70 years early

  • “This premature thawing is another clear signal that we must decarbonize our economies, and immediately”

LONDON: Permafrost at outposts in the Canadian Arctic is thawing 70 years earlier than predicted, an expedition has discovered, in the latest sign that the global climate crisis is accelerating even faster than scientists had feared.
A team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks said they were astounded by how quickly a succession of unusually hot summers had destabilized the upper layers of giant subterranean ice blocks that had been frozen solid for millennia.
“What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir E. Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the university, told Reuters by telephone. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.”
With governments meeting in Bonn this week to try to ratchet up ambitions in United Nations climate negotiations, the team’s findings, published on June 10 in Geophysical Research Letters, offered a further sign of a growing climate emergency.
The paper was based on data Romanovsky and his colleagues had been analizing since their last expedition to the area in 2016. The team used a modified propeller plane to visit exceptionally remote sites, including an abandoned Cold War-era radar base more than 300 km from the nearest human settlement.
Diving through a lucky break in the clouds, Romanovsky and his colleagues said they were confronted with a landscape that was unrecognizable from the pristine Arctic terrain they had encountered during initial visits a decade or so earlier.
The vista had dissolved into an undulating sea of hummocks — waist-high depressions and ponds known as thermokarst. Vegetation, once sparse, had begun to flourish in the shelter provided from the constant wind.
Torn between professional excitement and foreboding, Romanovsky said the scene had reminded him of the aftermath of a bombardment.
“It’s a canary in the coalmine,” said Louise Farquharson, a post-doctoral researcher and co-author of the study. “It’s very likely that this phenomenon is affecting a much more extensive region and that’s what we’re going to look at next.”
Scientists are concerned about the stability of permafrost because of the risk that rapid thawing could release vast quantities of heat-trapping gases, unleashing a feedback loop that would in turn fuel even faster temperature rises.
Even if current commitments to cut emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement are implemented, the world is still far from averting the risk that these kinds of feedback loops will trigger runaway warming, according to models used by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
With scientists warning that sharply higher temperatures would devastate the global south and threaten the viability of industrial civilization in the northern hemisphere, campaigners said the new paper reinforced the imperative to cut emissions.
“Thawing permafrost is one of the tipping points for climate breakdown and it’s happening before our very eyes,” said Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International. “This premature thawing is another clear signal that we must decarbonize our economies, and immediately.”