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Spain – the final frontier. The view changes within minutes between alpine sceneries, green pastures and plantations of olive trees and oaks. We are still travelling towards the South West on well maintained motorways. At one point, rain clouds start to gather above us and we have to pass through a heavy rainstorm. However, as we reach Merida, the sun shines again.
With a break to fill up petrol and get the bare necessities for the day we drive for only 390km. At 11:45 we finally see a long awaited sign: Minas de Riotinto. The name of this valley comes from the river which has a slightly red colour due to iron and copper which can be found in the valley. At first sight, the few lakes we pass look perfectly normal (blue), but when we look closely we can spot an orange line along the beach: the water is very rich in iron. Neither bathing in nor drinking of this water is recommended, as the water is acidic and can cause irritation. Every metal that gets into contact with it will oxidise momentarily.
Until two minutes ago we have been driving through a hilly forest, but after the last turn of the road everything changes: We are in the middle of a huge quarry, showing all colours between orange and dark red on its typical terraces, with a few houses and buildings for mining. It’s official – we have arrived on Mars! While we park up at a parking lot, we only have to wait for the other members of the team and our local guide. The 11km stretch of this road along the Rio Tinto is a tourist attraction.
Several minutes after we stopped, a blue truck arrives. It has ESA’s Eurobot onboard. Together we drive the last few meters to the “Mars Analogue Site”. Our arrival is filmed by Erich Proell and his assistant, who have arrived ahead of us. We are in a large (about half a square km), nearly spherical area, which can be seen from far away thanks to it’s bright orange colour.
The area is flat and nearly empty of vegetation. A small pine forest at least offers some protection from the sun. We go for a first stroll around the area to find a good location for our tents. Walking on this surface feels like walking over snow when the top layer is frozen and with every step you break in a little bit…
The first task is to build the tents where we are going to sleep for the next days. While we manage to bend the tent nails, apply sunscreen (SPF 50!) and generally work hard, our arrival doesn’t go unnoticed – the first gadflies find us. Next on our list is the OPS-tent, which will be our control centre on field, from where we keep in contact with MCC. To do so, we have to start the power generator first.
It is extremely hot, hats and sunglasses are necessary. Our food needs to get out of the heat, so we build another tent to store it. Chairs and tables are put up. Meanwhile the Eurobot has been taken off the truck using a fork lift. Laptops are installed and meters of cables are put out in the OPS tent, and beach flags are put up. We also try to stop for a lunch break, which proves to be difficult!
Shortly, I turn into a movie star as Erich Proell films me decorating the interior of my tent. Also Eurobot gets his own tent, where he gets parked via remote control by his team. The small power generator doesn’t seem to be able to provide enough power for the OPS tent, so we have to start the bigger one.
All the time a wind is blowing, and takes off my hat several times. Soon, all of us are covered with orange sand from head to toe. We breath the sand, get it in our eyes and ears and every so often someone sneezes.
Further members of ESA arrive with their experiments. A part of our team heads off to the next town to buy water: We will need much more of it than we had thought, as the heat makes drinking important. A box with crisps is another central point of our food tent: Every gram of salt we can get will be needed to replace what we loose sweating!
Late afternoon sees a technician of the spanish Telefonica, who brings a satellite dish. We hope to use it to maintain a broadband connection with MCC in Innsbruck, to transfer technical data, images and videos. At 19:00 we still have no communication with MCC… but at least, the temperatures start to fall, and we get an introduction into the usage of our camping toilets. (After spending the day minimising this process – some of us are amazed at the volume a human bladder can contain, if needed!)
An hour later we rebuild our rover, which had been taken apart for the transport from Innsbruck. By now, it is high time for dinner, and the gas cooker is turned on. We cook Spaghetti with sauce, or at least try to do so. The noodles stick together and parts of the sauce gets burnt, but our hunger lets us forget that this is not a four-star restaurant.
Eating, washing up and making everything ready for the night takes its time, so it is really late when we are done. The full moon outshines all of our lamps. At 23:00 a last member of the team arrives at the camp. We have by now learned an important lesson: there is no such thing as privacy, and the sand gets everywhere (laptops, clothes, eyes, ears, food…)
While camping holidays might be romantic „back on Earth“, here on „Mars“ it is hard work. Everything you touch is covered in this orange powdery sand, which sticks to you wherever you go. It has gone midnight by the time we manage to crawl into our sleeping bags – completely exhausted and still dirty. The sudden quiet takes us by surprise, only far off a few dogs are barking.
This day which has begun in a modern hotel at Talavera de la Reina ends without any luxury in a tiny tent somewhere in the middle of nowhere: A contrast which can be compared to the drastic changes in temperatures we have witnessed here. While the day was very hot (28degrees Centigrade in the shade) the thermometer drops down to 10 degrees Centigrade at night. But we are here now – and we will manage to overcome any difficulties, even if it means that we have to turn into orange marsmen!
This article is available in: German
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