An astronaut from a team from Europe and Israel walks in a spacesuit as he prepares to enter a sealed habitat during a training mission to Mars.  (Photo: JACK GUEZ / AFP)

In a 500-meter-deep crater, lost in the middle of the ocher Negev desert, astronauts in their spacesuits walk slowly. Your mission? Simulate living conditions on Mars in southern Israel.

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In this peculiar setting of Mitzpé Ramon, the largest erosion crater in the world with 40 km long, the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) installed its “Martian base”, in collaboration with the Israeli space agency, within the mission Amadee-20, initially planned last year but postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The crater, the rocky desert and the orange colors of the horizon resemble the landscape of Mars, but the weightlessness and the cold not so much. “Here we have temperatures of 25 to 30 ºC, on Mars it is minus 60 ºC and the atmosphere is unbreathable ”, explains Austrian Gernot Grömer, who oversees the mission.

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For almost a month and until the end of October, six “Analog astronauts” -term to describe the people who reproduce on Earth the conditions of long missions in space- natives of Portugal, Spain, Germany, Holland, Austria and Israel, will live isolated from the world, in this “Martian station”. And they can only get out of it in a diving suit, as if they were on the red planet.

“It is a dream come true”, says Alon Tenzer, a 36-year-old Israeli astronaut. “It is something we have been working on for several years, I am very happy to be here”, he assures AFP.

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An astronaut from a team from Europe and Israel walks in a spacesuit as he prepares to enter a sealed habitat during a training mission to Mars. (Photo: JACK GUEZ / AFP)

For the opening of the station on Sunday, Alon donned his best clothes: his silver gear, which, according to him, weighs about 50 kilos, and it takes two or three hours to put it on.

“Marriage” with Mars

All members of “the crew” are volunteers and had to pass many physical and psychological tests to be able to participate in the mission.

“My father took me to the space museum when I was little, he collected airplanes and when I found out that the forum was looking for analog astronauts I told myself that I had to introduce myself “, explains the German Anika Mehlis, the only woman in the group.

The Austrian Space Forum, a private organization that brings together specialists from the aerospace sector, partnered with the Israeli research center D-MARS to build this polygon-shaped, solar-powered base.

Inside, the comfort is spartan with a small kitchen and bunk beds, since most of the space is for science experiments.

In the future, its results could be crucial, as NASA, the US space agency, considers send a first manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.

Technicians help an astronaut from a team from Europe and Israel dress in a spacesuit before starting a training mission to Mars.  (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Technicians help an astronaut from a team from Europe and Israel dress in a spacesuit before starting a training mission to Mars. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

During the month in which they will simulate the life of Mars on Earth, analogous astronauts will have to test a prototype drone that works without GPS and autonomous vehicles powered by wind and solar energy to map the territory.

Microbiologist by training, Anika Mehlis will be in charge of evaluating the possibilities of microbial contamination, that is, the risk of introducing terrestrial bacteria to Mars that could kill any life on the red planet.

“It would be a big problem”he states, pointing to what is considered one of the greatest challenges in conquering space.

This photograph taken on October 10, 2021 shows an aerial view of a habitat where the astronauts will spend about a month.  (Photo: JACK GUEZ / AFP)
This photograph taken on October 10, 2021 shows an aerial view of a habitat where the astronauts will spend about a month. (Photo: JACK GUEZ / AFP)

In addition to testing equipment and technologies, the mission also wants to study human behavior, especially the impact of isolation on astronauts.

“Group coherence and the ability to work together is crucial to survival on Mars,” estimates the supervisor Gernot Grömer. “It’s like a marriage, only in a marriage, one can leave, and not on Mars.”, He comments ironically.

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