Ramonauts in the desert wearing spacesuits

Simulated Mars mission comes to an end in Israeli desert

Image credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Six participants have completed a short simulation of a manned Mars mission in the rugged, isolated Ramon landform in Negev.

During the mission, the four men and two women lived in a small pod, eating encapsulated food and wearing spacesuits whenever leaving the pod to conduct experiments in their Mars-like surroundings. They tested the design of the habitat, spacesuits, and communication infrastructure and workflows with the Mission Support Centre.

This team of “Ramonauts” consisted of a field commander, science officer, habitat designer, cosmic radiation investigator, documentation specialist and medic and food specialist. They worked together to conduct five scientific experiments: a project using a 3D printer, a communication and workflow test, a geobiological experiment, a search to detect cosmic radiation and – crucially – a psychological test.

Among more practical concerns about how humans may survive for extended periods of time on manned missions are apprehensions about how well equipped astronauts may be for the psychological toll of such a long and unusual mission. A manned Mars mission will inevitably last for years, and require the astronauts to spend this time in close confinement with a small group of other people and unable to communicate with home in real time.

The four-day mission was the first of a number of planned Mars missions to be conducted in the Desert Mars Analog Ramon Station (D-Mars), a facility near Mitzpeh Ramon, in the Ramon landform. This project is funded by the Israeli Space Agency and the Israeli Ministry of Science, Technology and Space.

“D-Mars is half about the research and the other half is about outreach,” participant Professor Guy Ron told Reuters.

“A major part of this project is getting public interest and getting students interested in space.

Israel’s space program boasts a number of satellite programs and scientific research projects, including some using Nasa satellites. Israeli is the smallest country with indigenous launch capabilities.

The Israeli Space Agency is not the first to conduct such simulated missions. Nasa has trialled rovers in the Mojave Desert to simulate the surface of Mars, while the European Space Agency’s list of “planetary analogues” includes projects in habitats ranging from Morocco to Antarctica. The Chinese Space Agency is preparing for a manned Mars mission by testing the resilience of volunteers during months-long stays in the Yuegong-1 simulated space cabin.

Although no space agency has laid out detailed plans for a manned mission to Mars, researchers around the world are engaged with research aiming to make this a reality, for instance, by developing 3D printing technology that could be used on another planet, and mini nuclear reactors which could power an extra-terrestrial base.

The recent Nasa budget, handed down from Donald Trump’s White House, has eliminated a number of environmental, educational and fundamental research projects in order to turn the focus of the agency vaguely towards exploration. Trump has previously demanded that Nasa complete a manned mission to Mars during his presidency.

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