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Journey to Mars, waypoint Israel
Or: How to select a test site for Mars simulations- a traveller´s report in two parts
One and a half years have passed since the last Mars simulation AMADEE-15. About time to plan the “next big one”! As part of the leadership team for the next analog mission of the Austrian Space Forum, I am involved in the planning process from the very beginning onwards. One of the first, and probably also one of the biggest, decisions we have to take is, where the AMADEE-18 mission should take place. It was clear that it should be a desert, so in the end we came up with two candidate host countries: Israel and Oman. To provide you, dear reader, a better insight in the site selection process, I am writing down my personal experiences from the scouting mission in Israel.
The scouting mission started on Friday 10Mar2017. Straight out of my daily life at the University of Innsbruck, Dr. Gernot Grömer and I took the plane to Tel Aviv. We arrived there in the middle of the night, exhausted but very excited about our trip to the Negev desert which was scheduled for the next day. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell our luggage that plan, as it did not arrive in Tel Aviv. So we had to improvise during the first two days of our stay, as some of our equipment was in that suitcases, but I guess improvising is something you would also have to do on a mission to Mars. Sometimes you have to deal with the unexpected.
Nevertheless, we were in high spirits when we left the Hotel in Tel Aviv and drove to Mitzpe Ramon, a small city in the Negev desert. On our way, we picked up Yuval Porat. He is also an OeWF member and really did a great job by helping to schedule our scouting expedition in Israel (no wonder that he is part of the Flight Planning team).
Around noon we arrived in Mitzpe Ramon, where we met Roy Naor, planetary geologist, and Dr.Yoav Avni, field geologist. Not wasting any time and daylight we started right away with the scouting. The first stop offered a marvellous view over the Ramon Crater, an erosive crater, 40 km long and 11 km wide. Continuing our way to through the crater, we assessed 3 flagstops during that afternoon. I was really impressed by the geological variety of that area; especially the sandstone caught my eye as it absorbs minerals and thus sometimes even resembles a rainbow with layers from dark red to light blue and yellow.
Some of the sites already came close to what we were looking for: no vegetation, an exploration radius of approximately 10 km and as less signs of humans as possible. Those are some of the main criteria we need for the test site of our analog simulation, as it should resemble Mars as much as possible. Due to the strong wind during our visit, the dust particles in the air let the sky look a lot like it would on Mars. That all may sound easy to find, but even power lines might hinder the isolation feeling the field crew should experience.
After a long day, we had the pleasure to be invited to Dr. Avnis home for dinner and I have to say, I really enjoyed the Israeli food: lots of salat, vegetables and, of course, Humus! Just the right diet to get some energy for the last appointments of the day. First, we had a short live interview with Yuval on Facebook and after that we met Dr. Elli Groner, chief scientist from the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center. He asked some very interesting questions about why we even should go to Mars and in what way our analog research is helping that endeavour.
On Sunday, we covered 7 flagstops. On every one of them we took panorama pictures, noted the coordinates and the altitude and collected soil samples. The latter are important for the determination of the grain size distribution of the area which is again a necessary information for teams which are working with rovers. By the way, bringing back soil samples and information about the test site is not “cheating”. We are only providing as much information to our Remote Science Support Team as would be realistic for a sample return mission from Mars in combination with data from remote sensing. Thanks to our guide for that day, Yoash Limon, we got a very good insight on the touristic activities in that area, which contributed to the picture we got from the geologists during the previous day. I can say that it is not easy to find places, which are geologically interesting, but without much tourism. Imagine conducting an experiment whilst wearing a 45kg spacesuit simulator and a tourist who wants to take a selfie with you approaches. That is definitively something we want to avoid during our mission in order to prevent human factor studies on isolation from being distorted. After considering every criterion mentioned above, we can say that Israel has a high potential for analog field research.
The following day was packed with meetings, starting with an interview at the i24 news channel. After that interview we picked up the third member of the scouting delegation from the airport, Alexander Soucek, who is the head of the Legal Team. Gladly, we had a two-hour drive to our next appointment at the Soroka University Medical Center, because after those intense two days behind us, there was a lot to discuss. I even got to practise my driving skills in the hectic Tel Aviv rush hour, which kept my adrenalin level high. Back from our meeting at the Medical Center we had two more appointments in Tel Aviv before we could enjoy a delicious dinner at the old harbour of Tel Aviv.
Way too fast, the last day of our stay in Israel has come and with that the last two meetings. The overall goal of all those meetings was to identify potential partners, in case Israel will be selected as the host country for AMADEE-18. That also shows how the endeavour to pave the way for future crewed missions to Mars, can create strong international collaborations, based on mutual respect and the same fascination for exploration. It was really a common impression we got in every meeting, that Israel is for sure working hard on establishing its space industry. Also in the field of analog research, many projects promise an interesting future for both scientists and students.
After some more Humus, we had to catch the plane back to Innsbruck, where we finally had the time to write a report on our findings, reflect on the different sites we have seen and finally catch some sleep. Those four days were for sure intense, but I had the privilege to learn a lot about geology, negotiating on an international level and the Israeli culture.
Stay tuned to find out more about AMADEE-18!
Author: Sophie Gruber, OeWF AMADEE-18 leadership team
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