Red Planet, or Promised Land? Simulated Mars mission begins in Israel’s Negev Desert

Two years after Israel crashed a probe into the Moon, its space agency is setting its sights on Mars. Six people have begun a three-week mission in the Negev Desert, helping to prepare for a manned exploration of the Red Planet.

The mission, which began on Monday at the Desert Mars Analog Ramon Station, or D-MARS, is a joint project of the Israel Space Agency and the Austrian Space Forum. Geologically, the Ramon Crater in the Negev Desert was found to be close to the conditions on Mars, even though temperatures there are significantly higher, even in winter.

© OeWF (Florian Voggeneder)

The study involves only the ground part of Mars exploration. Six “analogue astronauts” will be living in isolation for three weeks, sleeping and conducting science experiments inside their habitat and taking walks outside in “spacesuit simulators.” A mission control center in Austria will be in touch with the crew.

The explorers hope to learn from the mission which technologies and psychological tricks would be effective in fostering team cohesion, but more importantly, which would fail.

“We have the motto of ‘Fail fast, fail cheap, and have a steep learning curve’. Because for every mistake we make here on Earth, we hope we don’t repeat it on Mars,” Gernot Gromer, director of the Austrian Space Forum, told Reuters.

The AMADEE-20 is the 13th mission of its kind managed by the Austrian organisers, with previous ones handled by Morocco in the Sahara Desert, the state of Utah in the US, Spain, and Oman.

The simulation in Israel was supposed to take place last year, but Covid-19 restrictions threw a spanner in the works. Members of the current team have been picked from Austria, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain.

The AMADEE-20 test site. ©

Experiments looking at human survival in extreme conditions, such as those of space, began decades ago, and entire closed ecosystems have been constructed for that purpose, including the likes of the Soviet BIOS-3 and the American Biosphere 2.

In recent years, the ‘space preppers’ have really stepped up their game, with several missions specifically simulating human settlements on Mars running at the same time.

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The planet Mars © NASA / Greg Shirah
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The longest such mission, MARS-500, was staged in Moscow, Russia between 2007 and 2011 as a psychological isolation experiment lasting 520 days, and involved Russian, European, and Chinese crewmembers. NASA ran its own eight-month simulation on top of a Hawaiian volcano in 2017.

READ MORE: ​‘Tastes like liver’: Russian scientists to develop farms of giant snails for future Mars settlers

While Israel established its national space agency in 1983, its launches have so far been confined to low Earth orbit. However, in 2019, Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL set out to make history as the world’s first private organization to land on the Moon. Unfortunately, its spacecraft, dubbed Beresheet, crashed into the surface of Earth’s satellite at a speed of over 130 meters per second, while also potentially contaminating it with thousands of microscopic lifeforms. Despite the failure of the mission, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged state support for Beresheet 2, with SpaceIL saying it was also looking into launching a probe to Mars.

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© Youtube / BrightSide
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