Science & Environment

Technology tested for future manned missions to Mars

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Media captionGernot Groemer from the Austrian Space Forum on the technology being tested out in Spain's "Martian" terrain

"This is Mars in Europe," says Gernot Groemer, from the Austrian Space Forum.

Looking around, it is easy to see why: the landscape is a vision in red. Only the odd splashes of greenery give the game away.

Rio Tinto in southern Spain is a former mining area, and with its unusual chemical and geological make up, it is surprisingly similar to the Red Planet.

Expedition leader Professor Groemer, who is based at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, explains: "We have a mineral here called jarosite - and that is exactly what we have on Mars."

This makes it an ideal place to test out new technology that could one day make to Mars.

Image caption Rio Tinto looks a lot like Mars

One piece of kit being tested in these field trials, which are partially funded by the Europlanet network, is a spacesuit simulator called Aouda.X.

With its onboard life-support systems and hi-tech computers, it is specially designed to protect any astronaut inside from the hostile Martian conditions.

Freezing temperatures, a noxious atmosphere and being bombarded with deadly radiation are just a few of the horrors that any humans there would have to contend with.

At Rio Tinto, the team is investigating whether the suit can keep any samples that are collected sterile - a must for any mission to Mars.

Professor Groemer says: "This is a big issue in astrobiology. When we are looking for traces of extinct or extant life on Mars, if we find something, we really need to be sure it is indigenous and not a hitchhiker from Earth."

Alongside the spaceman, some rovers are also getting a test run across the rocky red terrain, including a prototype called Eurobot.

Phillippe Schoonejans, head of the robotics project office at the European Space Agency (ESA), says: "It is a human-like robot. It has stereo vision, and two arms that can operate little pieces of payload.

"It can do anything that is too difficult, too dangerous or too boring for astronauts to do."

Distant dream

But it may be a long time before Eurobot gets to lend humans on Mars a helping hand.

Although space agencies around the world have declared great interest in manned missions to our planetary neighbour, no definitive plans have been put forward.

Image caption Scientists say we need to start planning now if we want to make it to Mars

However, the scientists at this field site are optimistic.

Scott Hovland, head of human systems at ESA, says: "I think that we are capable with a lot of the technology that we have.

"But there's still quite a few new technologies that I believe would be needed - we need better ways of getting people there, with more powerful propulsion systems, to shorten the duration - things like that.

"But I am pretty positive than in our lifetime, we have a good chance of seeing something like that happening."

One-way ticket?

If and when this does come about, the chance to make the first footprints in the red Martian soil would be irresistible to some.

Ulrich Luger, from the Austrian Space Forum, has been testing out the spacesuit. He says wearing it at this Mars-analogue site has given him a glimpse of what a real mission might be like.

"If somebody asked me if I wanted to go to Mars, of course I would love to go," he says.

Image caption Ulrich Luger has been trying out the spacesuit

"But there are two kinds of missions. One with a one-way ticket: you only fly there and don't come back. The other is you fly to Mars and come back safely.

"If everything was safe, then I would say yes and I would love to go to Mars. But a one-way ticket? I don't know."

It may take many more decades before humans arrive on the Red Planet.

But the team at Rio Tinto says that if this final frontier is ever to be reached, we need to start laying the groundwork now.

Professor Groener says: "Nobody can say what the technology will be 20 or 30 years from now.

"But whatever the microchips look like, whatever the surface coating on a spacesuit will look like, I'm sure that the what we are doing today - the grand ideas, the procedures - that can be defined right now. And that's what we are doing here in this beautiful place.

"This is a dress rehearsal for the biggest journey our civilisation has ever taken."

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