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Astronauts to simulate life on Mars in southern Israel biodome

The 11-day mission is the latest to take advantage of the D-Mars project biodome.

Fans of Matt Damon’s 2015 movie “The Martian” know that living on the Red Planet can be a brutal endeavor. Extreme temperatures, sand storms, sparse food – not to mention the chasm of solitude that marks the epic distance from family back on Earth.

Nonetheless, Damon’s character found clever ways to deal with the harsh conditions of life on Mars – including figuring out a way to grow four-year’s worth of potatoes. And now, real-life astronauts are hoping to take a page from the movie screen by prepping for Martian life in a biodome just like the one Damon stayed in.

After finishing experiments outside, astronauts walk back to the D-Mars habitat in southern Israel. (Photo: Dr. Niamh Shaw)

This March, six Israeli astronauts will enter a specially constructed Mars habitat in a desolate area in southern Israel – near the 200 million-year-old Ramon Crater, the 25-mile-wide star attraction of the Ramon Nature Reserve. Although not an impact crater, but a rare form of erosion structures, it has a resemblance to a variety of terrain types relevant to Mars exploration. And the surrounding area hosts many similarities to the Martian environment in its geology, aridity and isolation.

Hadas Nevenzal, who’s getting her Ph.D. in biotechnology at Bar-Ilan University, is helping organize the mission, known as the D-Mars project. “It’s a very big step forward in exploring how we can survive on another planet,” she told From The Grapevine.

Israeli astronaut Dr. Reut Sorek Abramovich preps to go outside during a stay in the habitat last year. (Photo: Dr. Niamh Shaw)

The astronauts – they’re actually called Ramonauts after Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who perished in the Columbia Shuttle disaster – will be locked inside for 11 days. Everything is being done to mimic life on Mars as much as possible. They’ll venture outside to conduct various experiments, but only once they don a spacesuit that takes about an hour to put on.

They will have no cell phone access. They will be able to communicate with engineers based at a mission control miles away, but it won’t be an easy conversation. Because of Mars’ distance from Earth, it takes about 10 minutes for a message to arrive from one planet to the other. Add to that another 10 minutes for a reply message to be sent back. This will be the same way the astronauts in the habitat communicate with the outside world. Similarly, the video feeds coming from the D-Mars project will be delayed by 10 minutes.

An astronaut in Israel steps out of the D-Mars habitat to explore the nearby surroundings. (Photo: Dr Niamh Shaw)

The D-Mars project launched last year with a short three-day mission. Since then it has been used multiple times – including for a multi-day stint by a bunch of Israeli high school students last month. The mission this March will be its longest yet.

The habitat has become so useful for research that the Austrian Space Forum has chosen the location for an international endeavor next year. From mid-October to mid-November 2020 a team of six astronauts from across Europe will live in the D-Mars habitat in Israel to test procedures and experiments that will enable future Mars explorers to detect traces of life on the Red Planet. They will work in isolation, but be assisted from 2,000 miles away by the Mission Support Center in Innsbruck, Austria.

Israeli astronaut Alon Shikar shows off his sleeping pod before a short stay in the habitat last year. (Photo: Courtesy D-Mars)

One of the astronaut slots for that mission has been reserved for a local. More than 90 Israelis applied and two were chosen. “They will go through all the process of the training,” Nevenzal explained. “In the end, one of them will go inside the habitat and the other one will be for a backup who could step in if needed.” She added that they are open to accepting ideas for scientific experiments for that mission.

This is not the first habitat to simulate life on Mars. The U.S.-based Mars Society built the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah because the site closely resembles the environment on the Red Planet. The MDRS accepts visitors who are willing to stay for two to three weeks at a time. More than a thousand people have participated since the program began.

Veronica Ann Zabala-Aliberto and Hugh Gregory collect rocks outside the Mars Desert Research Station during a Mars simulation mission in Hanksville, Utah. (Photo: George Frey/Getty Images)

Getting humans to Mars has become the new de facto space race. NASA has built a humanoid robot called “Valkyrie” which they hope to send to the Red Planet on a fact-finding mission. Researchers at the University of Arizona have been developing a “Martian greenhouse” capable of not only feeding astronauts, but also supplying them with vital oxygen. Buzz Aldrin, who will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his iconic moon walk this summer, has made getting to Mars his new life’s mission. “It is in our DNA, our makeup as human beings, to have a curiosity to expand our knowledge and to explore beyond the present limits,” he told us. “It is an inevitable mark of progress.”

The Israel Space Agency signed up to help NASA with a journey to Mars. That partnership will include joint missions between the two countries as well as sharing facilities and personnel. Most important, NASA will now have access to Israeli-made Mars equipment, which is known for being light in weight and energy efficient. (It’s that same efficiency that recently propelled an Israeli ship into space with the hopes of becoming only the fourth country to ever land on the moon.)

The terrain in southern Israel is similar in many ways to that of Mars. (Photo: Dr. Niamh Shaw)

Andy Weir, the author of the bestselling book that the Matt Damon movie is based on, isn’t sure he could survive in one of these habitats, or on the real deal. “I don’t think if you’re just a layman sent up to Mars you would be able to survive for very long,” he told From The Grapevine. “It’s an extremely dangerous environment. It would be like if you just took some eager, yet untrained, volunteer and sent them to Antarctica. They wouldn’t be able to survive for very long either.”

Asked what non-essential item he would bring with him on a trip to Mars, Weir thought about it for a moment and replied: “I would bring a big old collection of ’80s synth music. That’s what I grew up with and that’s what I like.”

This article was written by Benyamin Cohen and published in FromTheGrapevine

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