Ambitious Mars colony simulation starts today with serious stakes

AMADEE-20 may not be on Mars but it sure looks a lot like it, and that's just why the new mock-habitat mission could be so important. Kicking off today, the Austrian Space Forum's big Mars base experiment will see six analog astronauts live for a month in the Ramon Crater in Israel, trying to shake out some of the glitches in the hope of smoothing future settlement efforts on the red planet.

Rather than a specific country's space agency, the Austrian Space Forum is an independent institution looking at the practicalities around future Mars colonization. AMADEE-20 is just the latest stage in that process, though arguably the most ambitious.

Initially intended to begin last year, but postponed due to the pandemic, AMADEE-20 is based around a pseudo-expedition location in the remote desert. The six people – five men, one woman – will occupy a roughly 1,300 square foot structure, designed to simulate what a future Mars habitat might look like. They'll also be equipped with space suits and a long list of experiments to carry out.

Replicating the experience of being hundreds of millions of miles from Earth will be key. Although the mission operators will only be located in Innsbruck, Austria, communications between them and the astronauts will be delayed by 10 minutes. That echoes the lag involved as signals travel to and from Mars.

At the same time, a battery of sensors and cameras will track the astronauts' movements and body signals at all time. When outside of the habitat, they'll have access to both an autonomous rover and a drone. Part of the challenge for the month ahead is exploring how navigation and communications on Mars might be possible, given it lacks the GPS and cellular networks that people on Earth now take for granted.

Although not everything is expected to go exactly to plan, that in itself is part of the mission. The hope is that, by identifying challenges and hurdles while still on Earth, plans to deal with them can be developed before humans actually set foot on Mars. After all, trying to figure out fixes across that distance, and with limited resources, will be exponentially tougher.

It's not the Austrian Space Forum's first foray into simulated missions. Back in February 2018, AMADEE-18 saw a four week Mars simulation mission undertaken in Oman, with five analog astronauts testing out spacesuit designs, trialing rover technologies, and putting various equipment through its paces.