Mars Simulated in Morocco
This month has seen the MARS2013 simulation underway in a desert in the Northern Sahara. 23 nations were involved in the simulation, which was headed up by the Austrian Space Forum.
The simulation consisted of a number of tests of equipment, protocols and instruments, most notably perhaps the Aouda.X Mars Spacesuit.
The spacesuit was designed as a way to model and understand the real problems encountered and limitations created by wearing space suits on Mars. In particular, they're very interested in understanding the potential for contamination in planetary exploration as well as the problems of coping with heat and low pressure. They already know that the suit can perform within a temperature range of -100°C to +35°C, but they now need to know how easy it is to walk on rocky terrain or perform certain tasks while wearing the suit.
Testing it in the harsh conditions of a Moroccan desert will also allow the Austrian Space Forum to develop their "advanced human-machine interface" - a set of sensors and software designed to act as a local virtual assistant to whoever is manning the suit. This system would then interact with other mission essential components such as rovers and external instruments.
Testing the suit is just a small part of the simulation, which includes experiments on a long-term medical monitoring system, various physiological and psychological tests, new laser-based life detection systems and even a lightweight quad-bike for getting around the surface of Mars.
All of the experiments are run from mission control in Austria, but with a clever twist - communication signals are delayed so that they can test not just the kit, but the problems we are likely to have communicating with a team on Mars.
The project comes to an close at the end of this month, so we should hope to see their results shaping any future plans of manned missions out into the solar system!