MUSCAT: A number of memoranda of understanding (MoUs) on the Sultanate’s hosting and supporting the experiments for simulating life on Mars were signed at the Majlis Oman’s premises on Monday under the auspices of His Highness Sayyid Shihab bin Tareq al Said, Adviser to His Majesty the Sultan.
The first MoU was signed between Oman National Steering Committee for AMADEE-18 and Austrian Space Fo-rum (OeWF). As per the MoU, the Sultanate will host the experiments that serve joint research interests and enhance international efforts in the field of space travel and scientific exploration.
Meanwhile, in sunglasses and jumpsuits, a crew of European test astronauts is laying the groundwork for a Mars simulation in the barren expanse of the Omani desert, a terrestrial mission intended to pave the way to the red planet.
The “analog astronauts” of the Austrian Space Forum — a volunteer-based collective — have arrived in Oman to begin preparations for a four-week simulation mission due to begin next year.
Touching down at Marmul Airport, the five-person advance team loaded up on sunscreen and, with their Omani counterparts dressed in crisp white gowns and colourful turbans, boarded four-by-fours and plunged into the desert under the blazing sun.
Oil installations receded into the background and only rocky plateaus and ancient sandy riverbeds remained as far as the eye could see. Maps were spread on the hoods of the vehicles.
“We want to simulate Mars on Earth and so we need a place that looks as much like Mars as possible. And we found it here in Oman,” Alexander Soucek, the lead flight director of the AMADEE-18 mission, said.
The team was on a quest to pin down the location of the base camp for the simulation, to be held in February.
“Here the humans coming from Earth will land after six months travel through space… Simulated, of course!” Soucek said upon arrival at the chosen site.
“When we fly to Mars in reality, we will need as many questions as possible already answered so that we are really well prepared.”
During the mission, the team will carry out a series of experiments, from growing greens without soil in an inflatable hydroponic greenhouse to testing an autonomous “tumbleweed” rover, which maps out terrain while propelled by the wind.
“There are very few groups on this planet testing these procedures and doing these high-fidelity simulations,” said Soucek. “We are one of them.”
The team hopes the simulation will help nail down future tools and procedures for the first manned mission to Mars.
Field commander Gernot Groemer predicts a Mars mission may be carried out by a collective of the United States, Russia, Europe and possibly China relatively soon — with the first human to set foot on the red planet maybe already born.
“What we’re going to see here in about 100 days is going to be a sneak preview into the future,” said Groemer, describing a U-shaped encampment where “an exquisitely compiled suite of experiments” will take place.
Those include experiments designed to test human factors that could affect pioneering astronauts, such as mental fatigue and depression.
Just 15 people will enter the isolation phase, when their only way to troubleshoot snags will be through remote communication with “earth” in Austria.
The total cost of the project is expected to be around half-a-million euros, covered mainly by private donations from industry partners.
The Austrian Space Forum argues the money is not being “thrown into space”
and that the tools being developed are not only useful for life on a distant planet but for our own.
“Most people every day use a handful of space technologies without even knowing it,” said Groemer, listing off satellite imagery, fuel injection
for cars and breast cancer screening software.
On Monday the Austrian Space Forum signed a memorandum of understanding with Oman, making the Sultanate’s selection as the mission site official.
For the Omani Astronomical Society, which invited the Austrian Space Forum, the mission is a way to inspire the country’s youth.
A series of lectures are taking place at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, geared especially towards hundreds of young students.
Shaikh Dr Al Khattab bin Ghalib al Hinai, Deputy Chairman of the State Council, Head of the Strategic Planning Committee at Oman Astronomical Society, says a high school team will even participate, conducting a geophysics experiment to find water.
“The whole idea is to ignite imagination within the young society in Oman, female and male, and I hope this journey of discovery will help them to always search for the unknown,” he said.
“I hope to see astrophysicists in Oman, I hope to see geologists. I hope to see astronauts in the future.”
MOUs: The first agreement was signed by Shaikh Dr Al Khattab bin Ghalib al Hinai, Deputy Chairman of the State Council, Head of the Strategic Planning Committee at Oman Astronomical Society, and Dr Gernot Gromer, President of the OeWF.
The second MoU was signed between the Oman National Steering Committee for AMADEE-18 and Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) and Oman Broadband Company (OBC) on providing logistic and financial subsidy as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) and community development programmes.
The agreement was signed by Shaikh Dr Al Hinai and Raoul Restucci, PDO Managing Director and Said bin Abdullah al Manthri, CEO of OBC.
Shaikh Dr Al Hinai delivered a speech saying that signing of the MoUs completes the efforts, which started last March. He said that the OeWF’s selection of the Sultanate for conducting these experiments came after an international competition that are based on a range of factors and principles.
The scientific team of the forum concluded that conducting such experiments in the Sultanate will serve the interests of the experiment and ensure its success.
He added that the geology and topography of the Sultanate are similar to those on March surface, which will be the original base for achieving the simulation aims.
He said that the scientific team of OeWF has visited natural sites that are similar to Mars.
Saleh bin Said al Shithani, Chairman of Oman Astronomical Society, said that the Sultanate’s hosting highlights the
contribution of Oman to space research and studies and enhancing the readability of technology.
It also supports the systems that enhance the astronauts’ life and help them discover other worlds at the solar system.
Raoul Restucci said in a statement that the company will provide subsidy and will avail the experiment site south of the PDO’s concession area.
It will also provide support in health, safety, environment and other logistic issues by hosting the experiment to simulate life on Mars.
HH Sayyid Shihab honoured the public and private organisations that supported the
experiment to simulate life on Mars. The signing ceremony was attended by minsters, members of the State Council and under-secretaries.