Simulation of astronauts installing a weather station in Arkarula in the outback of South Australia. (Provided: Australian Mars Society and Saber Astronautics)
It is unlikely that people will call Mars home in the near future, but researchers believe that the drylands can help us better understand how to survive on the Red Planet.
- Researchers say it's time to build a simulated Mars research station in the outback, repeating the future community on the Red Planet
- They say that the creation of the Australian Space Agency means that the time has come for such an enterprise
- Mars research stations already exist in Utah, USA, and also in the polar desert on Devon Island, in the Arctic region of Canada.
The Mars Society in Australia has resumed the development of a simulation of the Mars research station in the Arkarula Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Australia.
The site will repeat the future community of Mars, complete with a fake rocket ship, laboratories, rovers and scientists in spacesuits, conducting field experiments in rocky outcrops.
“This will allow us to conduct a wide range of events that support the vision of a human presence on Mars,” said Society President Jonathan Clark.
“We can educate people in field sciences and space operations in the area, and we can conduct educational and enlightenment programs.
“We conduct experiments to monitor human activities in remote areas, test medical procedures and monitoring, and develop and test technologies such as hand tools and robotics.”
Rover explores Arkarula in the sparsely populated areas of South Australia. (Provided: Mars Society, Australia)
Society has defended what it has called its analogue research station, Mars, for 18 years, but now it has a more compelling reason to create it.
He relies on the creation of a new space agency in Australia, as well as on the hasty plan of US President Donald Trump to return America to the moon by 2024 and, I hope, to continue the flight to Mars.
“Australia has lagged in the space sector for decades,” said Dr. Clark.
“The creation of the Australian Space Agency is a game for those who want to develop space technology in Australia.
“This allows us to look for actual funding for the (analog research station) commercial and public sectors.”
Australia joins space race
In September, the Australian government announced it would invest $ 150 million in Australian businesses and researchers to join the U.S. Mars exploration project.
“This is a gateway not only for exploring the moon, but also for asteroid missions and flying to Mars,” said Dr. Clark.
“It is important that we participate in this, because it is one of the large visionary projects of the 21st century.”
Saber Astronautics, a company with offices in Sydney and Colorado (USA) that produces next-generation flight control software, previously used Arkaroola to test its technology.
However, company CEO Jason Held said that the prospect of a permanent facility — equipped with mock rocket ships, laboratories, communications services, and living quarters — would be more rewarding.
“I think this is a critical component because you want to know not only what it feels like for people on Mars, but also how you communicate with them and work with them from Earth,” Mr. Held said.
"Australia has really good geography and a terrain similar to Mars, so walking on earth resembles Mars."
He suggested that Australian research stations in Antarctica could also be used to help scientists prepare for life on Mars, given the frosty climate.
The researcher installs a stereo camera at the Mars analogue research station in Utah. (Provided: US Mars Society)
“It makes people practice and learn new methods and procedures that go beyond the boundaries of an isolated state, and the way you actually do your science in these places,” Held said.
Research stations on Mars already exist in Utah in the USA and in the polar desert on Devon Island in the Arctic region of Canada.
They are used by international space agencies such as the European Space Agency and NASA, as well as research institutes and private companies wishing to practice work on Mars.
Dr. Clark said that while the idea of having it in Australia seems far-fetched, it has become a good source of money for the state’s economy, especially in the face of the growing private space sector.
"Utah Station receives about 10-15 teams every year and is booked 2 years in advance with people from all over the world." he said.
“There is a 2-year waiting list, and two-thirds of applications are thrown back, so there is huge demand and global interest in this tool.”
Sparsely populated areas of South Australia mimic life on Mars
The Arkarula Desert Sanctuary is located on an area of 610 square kilometers owned by land in free ownership and shepherding in South Australia, and a 10-hour drive from Adelaide.
“We have chosen the Arkarula region from more than 30 or 40 locations across central Australia as the place where all the ducks are lined up in terms of scientific interests, access and land use,” said Dr. Clark.
Doug Sprigg, owner of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, said that there have been eight Mars simulations in Arkaroola over the past two decades, but the researchers worked in temporary structures and not as a permanent counterpart.
He said that while some groups came to check software and hardware, others came to dig fossils and look for microscopic life.
Arkarula has 100 million summer hot springs that seem to have signs of extremophiles – organisms that live in extreme conditions.
“This ancient life happily exists in today's hot springs on the surface of the earth and in the mid-ocean rift zones, so developing and testing methods to confirm its existence in Arkarula can give us methods to detect pre-existing life on the surface of Mars,” Mr. Sprigg said.
UK space agency workers test rock sample at Mars Utah's analog research station. (Society of Mars USA)
Support systems needed
“Arkarula also has some strange life, for example, bacteria that feed on gold and concentrate them, which use cyanide as a digester, as well as bacteria that feed on uranium, which can help in the environmentally friendly mining and cleaning of contaminated sites.
“We also have algal blooms that love radiation and have a self-healing gene, perhaps this gene can be used in the medical industry.”
Having a permanent analogue site will help scientists and space companies trial and error determine which services, protocols and technologies they will need on Mars, if it ever happens.
In 2016, Saber Astronautics worked with a team of Dr. Clark during a fake mission to Mars in Arkarula.
“We had sensors in spacesuits to measure heart rate and skin temperature, as well as sensors for robots and the environment, so we knew everything was happening locally,” Held said.
Saber Astronautics conducted flight control operations at a distance of 1,200 kilometers in Sydney.
This is a great distance, but much less than the actual distance – Mars, closest to Earth, is at a distance of 50 million kilometers.
“People on Mars have a 20-minute delay between Earth and Mars, so if something goes wrong, they need their own systems in place, and you need support systems in place,” Held said.
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