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Oman to stand in for Mars for technology trials

Momentum building for mission to Red Planet

The desolate desert in southern Oman resembles Mars so much that more than 200 scientists from 25 nations have chosen it as their location for the next four weeks to field-test technology for a manned mission to Mars.

Public and private ventures are racing towards Mars - both former US president Barack Obama and SpaceX founder Elon Musk declared humans would walk on the Red Planet in a few decades.

New challengers like China are joining the United States and Russia in space with an ambitious, if vague, Mars programme, while aerospace corporations such as BlueOrigin have published schematics of future bases, ships and suits.

The successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket this week "puts us in a completely different realm of what we can put into deep space, what we can send to Mars", said analogue astronaut Kartik Kumar.

The next step to Mars, he said, was to tackle non-engineering problems such as medical emergency responses and isolation.

"These are things I think can't be underestimated," Mr Kumar said.

While cosmonauts and astronauts are learning valuable spacefaring skills on the International Space Station - and the US is using virtual reality to train scientists - the majority of work to prepare for interplanetary expeditions is being done on Earth.

And where better to field-test equipment and people for the journey to Mars but on some of the planet's most forbidding spots.

Seen from space, the Dhofar desert is a flat, brown expanse. Few animals or plants survive in the desert expanses of the Arabian Peninsula, where temperatures can top 51C.

On the eastern edge of a seemingly endless dune is the Oman Mars Base: a giant 2.4-ton inflated habitat surrounded by shipping containers turned into labs and crew quarters.

There are no airlocks.

The desert's surface resembles Mars so much it Is hard to tell the difference, Mr Kumar said, his spacesuit caked in dust.

"But it goes deeper than that: the types of geomorphology, all the structures, the salt domes, the riverbeds, the wadis, it parallels a lot of what we see on Mars."

The Omani government offered to host the Austrian Space Forum's next Mars simulation during a meeting of the United Nation's Committee On the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Gernot Groemer, commander of the Oman Mars simulation and a veteran of 11 science missions on Earth, said the forum quickly accepted.

Scientists from across the world sent ideas for experiments and the mission, named AMADEE-18, quickly grew to 16 scientific experiments, such as testing a "tumbleweed" whip-fast robot rover and a new space suit called Aouda.

Faux space stations have been built underwater off the coast of Florida, on frigid dark deserts of Antarctica, and in volcanic craters in Hawaii, according to Packing For Mars, a favourite book among many Mars scientists, written by Mary Roach.

Some simulations have helped develop cameras, rovers, suits and closed-loop life-support systems, he said.

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