Mars on Earth: Exploration of red planet starts in Oman’s remote Dhofar desert
Mars on Earth: Exploration of red planet starts in Oman’s remote Dhofar desert
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.
‘Touch the sun’: NASA spacecraft hurtles toward our star
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: Embarking on a mission that scientists have been dreaming of since the Sputnik era, a NASA spacecraft hurtled Sunday toward the sun on a quest to unlock some of its mysteries by getting closer than any object sent before.
If all goes well, the Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere, in November. In the years ahead, it will gradually get within 3.8 million miles (6 million kilometers) of the surface, its instruments protected from the extreme heat and radiation by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other high-tech wizardry.
Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to our star during the seven-year, $1.5 billion journey.
“Wow, here we go. We’re in for some learning over the next several years,” said Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named.
It was Parker who accurately theorized 60 years ago the existence of solar wind — the supersonic stream of charged particles blasting off the sun and coursing through space, sometimes wreaking havoc on electrical systems on Earth.
This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after a living person.
As Parker and thousands of others watched, a Delta IV Heavy rocket carried the probe aloft, thundering into the clear, star-studded sky on three pillars of fire that lit up the middle-of-the-night darkness.
NASA needed the mighty 23-story rocket, plus a third stage, to get the Parker probe — the size of a small car and well under a ton — racing toward the sun, 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from Earth.
A Saturday morning launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble. But Sunday gave way to complete success.
It was the first rocket launch ever witnessed by Parker, a retired University of Chicago professor. He said it was like looking at photos of the Taj Mahal for years and then beholding the real thing in India.
“I really have to turn from biting my nails in getting it launched, to thinking about all the interesting things which I don’t know yet and which will be made clear, I assume, over the next five or six or seven years,” Parker said on NASA TV.
Among the mysteries scientists hope to solve: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface, which is 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,500 degrees Celsius)? And why is the sun’s atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as Parker theorized in 1958?
“The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun,” said project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University. “We’ve looked at it. We’ve studied it from missions that are close in, even as close as the planet Mercury. But we have to go there.”
A better understanding of the sun’s life-giving and sometimes violent nature could also enable earthlings to better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, along with the power grids so vital to today’s technology-dependent society, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief.
Parker, the probe, will start shattering records this fall. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers), easily beating the current record of 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) set by NASA’s Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.
By the time Parker gets to its 22nd, 23rd and 24th orbits of the sun in 2024 and 2025, it will be even deeper into the corona and traveling at a record 430,000 mph (690,000 kilometers per hour). Nothing from planet Earth has ever gone that fast.
Even Fox has difficulty comprehending the mission’s derring-do.
“To me, it’s still mind-blowing,” she said. “Even I still go, ‘Really? We’re doing that?’“
The 8-foot (2.4-meter) heat shield will serve as an umbrella that will shade the spacecraft’s scientific instruments, with on-board sensors adjusting the protective cover as necessary so that nothing gets fried.
A mission to get up close and personal with our star has been on NASA’s books since 1958. The trick was making the spacecraft compact and light enough to travel at incredible speeds and durable enough to withstand the punishing environment.
“We’ve had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams,” Fox said.