Oman hosts 'Mars on Earth' experiment

Scientists say southern desert best resembles Red Planet

Powered by automated translation

To most, the climate and terrain may not be appealing: searing heat and rocky desert.

For astronauts whose aim is to eventually land on Mars, however, the territory of Oman is as close to the Red Planet as they may ever get.

As a result, more than 200 space scientists from 25 countries are conducting field tests in the remote southern deserts of Dhofar.

"The backdrop and terrain of the deserts and mountains in Oman are almost an exact replica of what you would find on Mars," Dr Narasimman Sundararajan, an associate professor at the Sultan Qaboos University, told The National.

Led and organised by the Austrian Space Forum, and supported by the university, the group — from countries including the United States, Russia and Britain — on Sunday began a four-week effort to acclimatise to what they might find and do on Mars.

Dr Sundararajan, who works in Applied and Exploration Geophysics at the university’s Earth Science Department, said the mission would replicate many of the same geophysical procedures that scientists would perform on Mars. For one they will be examining and studying the extraction of water from the surface. On Mars, water is not available in seas or rivers but possibly in geophysical areas that resemble the Dhofar deserts.

"We think the methods we use here in Oman could be used in the same way on Mars. We might need to make a few modifications in what we are simulating here in Oman," Dr Sundararajan added.

The experiment, named "Amadee-18 Mars Analogue Mission Oman", aims to prepare the scientists so that they would be well acquainted for what they would encounter in future expeditions on Mars.

The Austrian Space Forum says the deserts of Dhofar, the largest governorate in the Sultanate of Oman, have a resemblance to various Mars surface features, such as sedimentary structures dating back to the Paleocene and Eocene, salt domes of the South Oman Salt Basin and ancient river beds. The test site offers a wide range of sand and rocky surfaces.

The university said 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 upward 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.

But the university also said Oman will serve as a laboratory in which several new space designs will be tested, including a hydroponic, airtight greenhouse that is designed to grow food on Mars, a radio communications assembly 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, as well as new navigation systems for landing craft on Mars.

Hundreds of volunteers are also taking part, including many locals, aware of the potential that this month's mission is a good stage to promote Oman internationally, not just for scientific expeditions.

"We hope it will bring business and tourists in the villages and towns where the mission is located," said 34-year old Hafidh Abdullah, a volunteer who also owns a small supermarket in the town of Shamraa, just two kilometres from the experiment's base.