From the door to the expedition base, a few small steps to the left pass an autonomous rover. A few giant leaps to the right are a series of solar panels. The landscape is rocky, hilly, colored with red. It looks like targeted Mars.
Here in the Ramon crater in the desert of southern Israel, a team of six – five men and one woman – has begun to simulate what it will be like to live for about a month on the red planet.
Their AMADEE-20 habitat is hidden under a rocky outcrop. Inside, they sleep, eat, and perform experiments. Outside, they wear spotted spacesuits equipped with cameras, microphones and self-contained breathing systems.
“We have the motto of failing fast, failing cheaply and having a steep learning curve. Because for every mistake we make here on earth, we hope we do not repeat it on Mars,” said Gernot Gromer, director of the Austrian Space Forum .
The Austrian association is running the project together with the Israel Space Agency and the local group D-MARS.
A number of recent Mars probes have captivated astronomy fans around the world with robot rovers such as NASA’s endurance and, for the first time, helicopter ingenuity giving a glimpse of the planet’s surface. But a manned mission is likely to be more than a decade free.
With AMADEE-20 due to take place in 2020 but being postponed due to COVID-19, the team hopes to bring new insights that will help prepare for that mission when it arrives.
“The habitat right now is the most complex, the most modern analog research station on this planet,” Gromer said next to the 120-square-foot structure shaped like two large, connected yurts.
The six team members are constantly on camera, their vital signs are monitored, their movements inside are tracked to analyze favorite places to gather. All this to better understand the human factor, Gromer said.
Outside, other engineers and specialists are working with a drone and rover to improve autonomous navigation and mapping in a world where GPS is not available.
In total, they will conduct more than 20 experiments in areas including geology, biology and medicine and hope to publish some of the results when completed.
“We are six people working in a cramped space under a lot of pressure to do a lot of testing. There are definitely challenges,” said Alon Tenzer, 36, wearing the spacesuit carrying about 50 kg (110 lb) of equipment. “But I trust my crew that we are able to overcome these challenges.”