A team outfitted in space suits sets out on a quest to mimic conditions on Mars within a massive crater in Israel's sun-drenched Negev desert.
A team outfitted in space suits sets out on a quest to mimic conditions on Mars within a massive crater in Israel's sun-drenched Negev desert. At Makhtesh Ramon, a 1,600 foot (500m) deep, 25 mile (40km) broad crater, the Austrian Space Forum has built up a fictitious Martian base alongside the Israeli space agency.
Until the end of the month, the six "analogue astronauts" will be isolated in the virtual station.
"It's a dream come true," Israeli Alon Tenzer, 36, told AFP. "It's something we've been working on for years."
The candidates, who came from Austria, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain, had to complete a series of rigorous physical and psychological examinations.
They'll test a drone prototype that doesn't need GPS, as well as automated wind and solar-powered mapping vehicles, throughout their expedition.
The expedition will also look at human behaviour and how astronauts react to being alone.
"The group's cohesion and their ability to work together are crucial for surviving on Mars," said Gernot Groemer, the Austrian mission supervisor.
"It's like a marriage, except in a marriage you can leave but on Mars, you can't.
The Austrian Space Forum, a private group of aerospace experts, has previously organised 12 flights, the most recent of which took place in Oman in 2018.
The Israel initiative is part of the Amadee-20 mission, which was supposed to launch last year but was postponed because of the COVID-19 epidemic.
The forum has teamed up with D-MARS, an Israeli research centre, to build the solar-powered facility.
The sole woman on the crew, German astronaut Anika Mehlis, expressed her delight at being a part of the mission to AFP.
"My father took me to the space museum when I was little," she said. "When I saw that the forum was looking for analogue astronauts, I told myself I had to apply."
Mehlis, a certified microbiologist, will investigate a scenario in which germs from Earth infect possible life forms on Mars, which he describes as "a tremendous concern."
With its rocky wildness and orange hues, the surrounding desert resembles the Red Planet visually, but not in terms of atmospheric conditions.
"Over here, we have temperatures of about 25-30 degrees Celsius, but on Mars, the temperature is minus 60 degrees Celsius and the atmosphere is not fit for breathing," said Groemer.
"What we are doing here is preparing a large mission, the largest voyage our society has ever taken, as Mars and Earth are 380 million kilometres apart at their extreme point," he added.
The base's interior is sparse, with only a small kitchen and bunk beds. The majority of the area is set aside for scientific investigations.
The first human trip to Mars is expected to launch in 2030, according to NASA.