Morocco Mars small(Image credit: Katja Zanella Kux. Click here for a larger version)

What place on Planet Earth most closely resembles Mars?  It could well be the northern Sahara desert near Erfoud, Morocco.  And while Hatim Madani, the new AWB National Coordinator for Morocco, has no immediate plans for travel from his home in Casablanca to Mars, on a weekend in February he and his colleagues did participate in a close analog of a visit to the Red Planet—the MARS2013 Mars Analog Field Simulation.

The Mars2013 campaign, conducted in the northern Sahara near Erfoud, Morocco, from February 1 through 28, 2013, is a project of the Austrian Space Forum, in partnership with the Ibn Battuta Center in Marrakesh.  Directed by a Mission Support Center in Austria, a small field crew has been conducting experiments in preparation for future human Mars missions.  The experiments are in the fields of engineering, planetary surface operations, astrobiology, geophysics/geology, and life sciences.

As part of the Austrian Space Forum’s PolAres research program, the MARS2013 Mars analog field campaign aims to further the preparation of future human Mars missions by testing scientific instruments, exploring concepts for human-robotic partnerships, and conducting engineering and operations trials.

The area near Erfoud is considered an excellent proxy for various types of geological features of Mars, as well as a diversity of paleo(micro)biological signatures, terrain topographies similar to the Martian deserts and a test site area size which requires a diligent exploration mission design.  This field mission is designed to be:

  • An opportunity to study equipment behavior involving the simultaneous usage of instruments with the option of a human-in-the-loop (via the Aouda.X spacesuit),
  • A platform for testing life-detection or geophysical techniques, performing terrain tests for rovers and test concepts for high situational awareness of remote support teams,
  • A study of the northern Sahara as a model region for Martian deserts and extreme life, and
  • An outreach platform to enhance the visibility of planetary sciences

Hatim Mars2013Reporting on his visit, Hatim said, “It was a real trip to Mars!”