Oman to be Mars mission staging ground
September 9, 2017 | 9:55 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan / [email protected]
Terrain in some parts of the Sultanate — such as this location in Dhofar — resembles large swathes of the red planet Mars. Photo: File

Muscat: Oman is soon to become a staging ground and training base for missions to Mars.

With the geography and mineral composition of the Sultanate resembling that of the red planet, the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) is the latest organisation to conduct tests and experiments in Oman, as they attempt to replicate the conditions they will face on Mars.

Entitled, “The Mars Analogue Missions” and spearheaded by the OeWF, a four-week training exercise has been scheduled to be held in Oman in February 2018. Chief among the operations carried out will be AMADEE-18, which will look to simulate life on Mars among the Omani mountains and deserts, so that astronauts are well acclimatised to what they encounter in outer space.

“We are very proud to announce that we have received a great number of innovative, cutting-edge experiment submissions to be carried out aboard our 13th analogue mission in the Oman desert,” said Dr. Gernot Grömer, president of the Austrian Space Forum and mission field commander.

“I personally believe that many of the experiments selected belong to some of the strongest mission experiments we have seen yet.”

Other experiments that will be carried out include a field test of their prototype Aouda spacesuit, which weights 45 kilograms and is designed to mimic the gravitational conditions and read life signs the way it would need to on Mars.

The 19 experiments, which will be conducted, will be overseen by several scientists and engineers from organisations across the globe, including the Italian Space Agency, the Western University of Australia, the University of Innsbruck, Mission Control Services from Canada, the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany, and the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland.

Oman will be the laboratory in which several new space faring designs will be tested, including a hydroponic, airtight greenhouse that is designed to grow food on Mars, a radio communications array that is meant to function in areas of decreased gravity, tests to see how the time of day affects the physical and mental capabilities of astronauts, new navigation systems for landing craft on Mars, etc.

Dr. Narasimman Sundarajan is associate professor of Applied and Exploration Geophysics at the Sultan Qaboos University’s Earth Science Department at the College of Science.

“The rough terrain and desertified land in Oman are very similar to those found on Mars,” he said, speaking to the Times of Oman. “There are many geophysical methods by which scientists are looking to extract water from this surface, because water is not available in seas or rivers in a planet like Mars. There are methods used to extract water from underneath the surface of the soil on Earth, so whether these methods could be used on Mars, or whether they need to be modified is what will be simulated.

“We need to check with methods work properly,” he added. “When water-bearing rock in the subsurface is drilled, because of the pressure underground, the water gushes through. This water is found in the pores of the soil, or in fractures present under the surface.”

Previous studies conducted in Oman also point to a very significant presence of minerals in the Sultanate’s rocky terrain, another aspect of study on Mars. Oman boasts the largest exposed sections of the Earth’s mantle, thrust upwards by plate tectonics millions of years ago.

The mantle contains Peridotite, a rock that reacts with the carbon in air and water to form marble and limestone.

“Natural pools develop a surface scum (layer) of white carbonate. Scratch off this thin white film, and it'll grow back in a day. For a geologist, this is supersonic,” said Professor Peter Keleman, a geochemist and professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who has been exploring Oman's mountains for nearly three decades, and is conducting a $3.5 million research project, partly sponsored by the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“Every single magnesium atom in these rocks has made friends with the carbon dioxide to form solid limestone, magnesium carbonate, plus quartz," he said. "There's about a billion tonnes of CO2 in these mountains."

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