Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 May 2019

UAE astronauts to be isolated for up to six months in Mars mission trial

Mars Science City will simulate life on the Red Planet

The UAE will build an expanded version of Nasa's isolation dome in Hawaii, where crew and scientists train for months at a time. Courtesy: AFP
The UAE will build an expanded version of Nasa's isolation dome in Hawaii, where crew and scientists train for months at a time. Courtesy: AFP

Emirati scientists and astronauts will spend up to six months in isolated domes in the Dubai desert in an experiment to mimic life on Mars.

Trials designed to test what the human mind and body can cope with will begin at Mars Science City in as little as three years, senior space agency officials said.

The plan for the 1.7 sq km site was first announced 18 months ago and on Tuesday officials gave a fuller picture of what the Dh500 million project would look like.

“We will be putting a group of people in a controlled environment for a certain period of time - anything from a week to six months,” said Salem Humaid Al Marri, assistant director general at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.

“We will test them and go through a very long study into how they interact in a closed environment, just like they would on Mars.”

The space official, who overseas science and technology, said the centre is currently in talks with universities as to how the trials would work.

He said the buildings are expected to be ready in 2021 or 2022.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY by Kerry SHERIDAN, "Year-long Mars simulation to begin in Hawaii" This March 10, 2015, image courtesy of the University of Hawaii at Manoa shows the exterior of the HI-SEAS habitat on the northern slope of Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Six people are about to shut themselves inside a dome in Hawaii for a year, in the longest US isolation experiment yet aimed at helping NASA prepare for a pioneering journey to Mars. They are based on a barren, northern slope of Mauna Loa, living inside a dome that is 36 feet (11 meters) in diameter and 20 feet (six meters) tall. In a place with no animals and little vegetation around, they will close themselves in at 3:00 pm Hawaii time on August 28, 2015, (0100 GMT, August 29 Saturday), marking the official start to the 12-month mission. The men and women have their own small rooms, with space for a sleeping cot and desk, and will spend their days eating foods like powdered cheese and canned tuna, only going outside if dressed in a spacesuit, and having limited access to the Internet. == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE / MANDATORY CREDIT: "AFP PHOTO HANDOUT-University of Hawaii at Manoa/Neil Scheibelhut"/ NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS – NO A LA CARTE SALES / DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS == (Photo by Neil Scheibelhut / University of Hawaii at Manoa / AFP)
Nasa's project to simulate life on Mars was built in Hawaii. AFP

Mars Science City is one of several space ambitions the UAE has set out in recent years.

It also plans to send an astronaut to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz rocket later this year, send a probe to Mars in summer 2020 and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has even spoken of a colony on Mars, in a century's time.

The will not be the first country to put astronauts and scientists through isolation tests.

Between 2007 and 2011, the European Space Agency put space flight crew through 18 months of isolation in a sealed device in a Moscow suburb.

The crew were put through a series of stress tests including a total communications blackout.

Nasa has conducted similar experiments, most recently in 2017, when six astronauts were placed in isolation in a dome in Hawaii, simulating the conditions of life on Mars. Their provisions included powdered cheese and canned tuna.

The astronauts wore specially designed sensors that measured their voice levels and proximity to other people.

This allowed the researchers to collect data on whether the astronauts were arguing or avoiding each other.

Mr Al Marri said, as far in the future as the plan may be, a crew heading to the Red Planet could expect to be away from Earth for “at least three years”.

A rendering of the inside of the Mars Science City in Dubai.
A rendering of what the inside of the domed Mars Science City in Dubai may look like.

“A round trip there will take at last three years, you are talking six to nine months to get there and the same to get back,” he said.

“You also have to look at the time you spend there and then is the matter of the orbital alignment, which only takes place every two years - you can’t just decide to come and go as you like.”

Adnan Al Rais, project manager of the Mars 2117 project, also said: “We have a location but it is still in the design phase and we need to look at all the requirements. But we are expecting it to be completed over a three-to-four-year timeline.”

He said that those in the Mars Science City project would have to produce their own food, water and energy, a key criteria for anyone part of a space colony.

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“There a lot of areas that we need to work on before we can answer how many people will be there and what it will look like?” he said.

“At the moment we are more focused on the journey over the next five to 10 years, we are going to look at the impact today - not tomorrow.

“The bigger picture here is the journey, and the discoveries we make along the way, not the final settlement on Mars.”

He said that Mars Science City would be replicating life on Mars for artificial intelligence as well as humans.

“Before we can start talking about settlements, we will be developing Mars Science City to have the facilities to simulate life on Mars for humans and robotics,” he said.

The city will cover 1.9 million square feet. Dubai Media Office
The city spread over 1.7 sq km is a more ambitious version of Nasa's Hawaii dome. Dubai Media Office

He said that one of the key technologies for the first phase of the project was 3D printing.

The next 10 years, he said, would be spent researching how to produce food, water and energy.

“Converting carbon dioxide to oxygen is going to be a crucial part of our research,” he said.

“It is a long journey to Mars - between seven and nine months - so the resources have to be sustainable if it’s going to be a success.”

He said that the mission to place a settlement on Mars by 2117 was to benefit life on earth – not to offer an escape route from a planet ravaged by environmental damage.

“Mars used to have a similar environment to Earth, so it is going to be an extremely important test subject," he said.

“It is difficult to imagine living on Mars, it is going to be tough and there will be many challenges for us along the way.”

Updated: January 23, 2019 07:16 AM

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