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.


Tech accessories: Are these ‘side’ devices worth your money?

Updated 15 October 2018
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Tech accessories: Are these ‘side’ devices worth your money?

  • Tech retailers have continuously introduced side accessories to augment daily gadget use
  • Some accessories can really be helpful, but there are some that are just unnecessary

DUBAI: Using your phone to capture a moment has become second nature. A reflex stimulated by literally any experience – from the time the waiter delivers your food to the table, to the moment your best friend gets married – they are all documented, hundreds and thousands of photos and videos stored in an easily accessible digital storage. Our phones have indeed become our photo albums.

But while the memories we make every day are endless, the storage capabilities of our devices are limited, and tech companies have introduced a number of side accessories that address this rather disconcerting fact.

We take a look at some of the most popular storage-enhancing tech accessories in 2018 – Virtual storage is big business, but is it worth the money and is it necessary?

SanDisk Extreme MicroSDXC UHS-I Card with Adapter

Action cameras have long caught the eye of frequent travelers – if you’re one of them, this might be for you. The SanDisk Extreme memory cards are among the most popular ones in this niche, with its 4K Ultra HD and Full HD video recording and playback capability, especially built for adventurers who are fond of taking content while on the rush. 

The memory card’s selling point is its ability to survive in the most severe conditions. The manufacturers say it still functions in extreme temperatures and after being submerged a meter-deep salt water for three days. 

Read and write speeds are remarkable, especially for a very good deal that does not involve splashing out too much cash – the 32GB version sells at $18.99, while the 256GB sells at $139.99.

SanDisk Ultra MicroSDXC UHS-I Card with Adapter

The SanDisk Ultra memory card is one of my favorites. For starters, the memory capacity ranges from 16GB to a whopping 400GB – and it handles file transfers in a breeze. Packaging suggests a read speed of 100Mbps, with a slightly lower write speed. But over-all performance still depends on the host device – my Samsung Galaxy S9 plus is a perfect match.

Ideal for smartphones and tablets, this high-powered memory card works wonders in capturing and storing full HD videos. I watch a lot of my favorite TV shows on the go – and this memory card’s performance ups that experience by a notch. Smooth app launches are also very noticeable, credit that to its A1 rating, which means that the card is fully optimized for app use.

The higher capacity versions of SanDisk Ultra are worth the extra cash, especially for users who are heavy on storing multimedia content on their mobile devices. 

But cheaper options are available, with the 16GB version at $8.99. The 400GB version sells at $184.99.

SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick 

As the name suggests, the SanDisk Connect Wireless is a USB flash drive that uses built-in Wi-Fi to transfer and stream files wirelessly to and from multiple mobile devices. Available in several memory capacities up to 256GB, this comes with a free mobile app for file management. 

Upon testing, transfer speed is as slow as I expected, as the wireless stick only uses the older USB 2.0 technology – a weird choice in a spur of USB 3.0-capable flash drives. Wireless functionality can easily be dismissed in this area – I’d still use the classic wired-only memory sticks. But the multiple devices streaming feature was interesting, which is probably the product’s main selling point. However, I see very rare instances where this function really becomes necessary. For a $15.99 device, I’d pass on it.

SanDisk iXpand Flash Drive and Mini Flash Drive

Apple devices are notorious for their lack of flexibility when it comes to expanding storage capacity, compared to their Android counterparts, and this product is a clear attempt to address that. The flash drives sport a back-to-back connectivity setup – one for a regular USB port and the other for a lightning USB port, and are available in 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB versions.

But these flash drives can easily be brushed aside especially for MacBook or iMac users given Apple’s sophisticated cloud ecosystem. If you want to free up your memory by dumping photos and other media content, you can already do that directly to your laptop without using a thumb drive, potentially rendering this device redundant, if not unnecessary. 

Prices start at $25.99.

SanDisk Ultra Dual Drive m3.0

For Android users there is SanDisk’s Ultra Dual Drive m3.0. With a micro-USB and a USB 3.0 connectors on both ends, this OTG flash drive allows users to move content easily from both phones and computers.

As an Android loyalist myself, the Ultra Dual Drive does its job well in terms of speed and performance. As soon as it’s plugged in, the drive auto-mounts with ease – especially with the newer versions of the Android OS. The USB 3.0 connectivity was good enough for its price with an average write speed of 32Mbps and read speed of 110Mbps. The drive can also be used on USB 2.0 ports in slower read and write paces. 

But this Ultra Dual Drive is slowly becoming obsolete in the face of USB-C mobile phones. Recent releases from Samsung, for instance, are no longer compatible with this device. If USB-C is the future, then this OTG flash drive is definitely out of the list. Other android users can still take advantage of this product though, since some mobile developers have yet to join the USB-C craze. 

Prices start at $9.99.