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November 12, 2021 3:05 pm
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Life on ‘Mars’: Turning Israel’s Negev Desert Into a Slice of the Red Planet

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

Interview

Anika Mehlis (far-left) next to five fellow analog astronauts, in front of the Mars simulation habitat in Israel’s Negev desert. Photo: Austrian Space Forum

As a microbiologist, public health professional, PhD student, and a mother of three girls, Anika Mehlis wears more hats than most.

But in her free time, Mehlis also dons a helmet, as a so-called “analog astronaut” — and recently wrapped a 21-day research mission in Israel’s Negev desert to simulate the harsh conditions on Mars.

“I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up — and I kind of still don’t,” Mehlis told The Algemeiner in an interview. “I am really curious, and I like to learn new things. So that’s what I’m always trying to do.”

Over the years, Mehlis said she shared her mother’s interest in astronomy, and enthusiastically tracked her father’s newspaper clippings of the Apollo moon landings.

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When she spotted a local news article in 2018 about the Austrian Space Forum recruiting for a new class of analog astronauts — who participate in Earthly missions that help scientists prepare for missions to space — Mehlis didn’t think twice. She applied, and was selected as the only German, female astronaut on the team.

“Apart from the academic expertise, languages and physical fitness, soft skills also play an important role in the selection,” Mehlis said. “You have to be a lot of things in one person.”

“You need to be able to work in a team, cope well with stress, lead people, take charge or make decisions — but also know when it’s time to step back and let somebody else take the lead, if their expertise is needed in that moment,” she added.

In October, Mehlis took four weeks off from work and family life to take part in her first Mars simulation mission. Together with five male astronauts from other countries, she lived in an isolated, specially-constructed habitat at the Ramon Crater, in the middle of Israel’s Negev desert, for a period of 21 days. The mission, named AMADEE-20, was managed by the Austrian Space Forum and hosted by the Israel Space Agency.

The crater’s rocky landscape was chosen for resembling the Martian environment in its geology, aridity, appearance and desolation. For three weeks, the crew did not leave the solar-powered habitat, except to conduct experiments and collect rock and soil samples — wearing so-called “space suit simulators” weighing 110 pounds.

“You need two people to help put on the hefty suit, and wearing it felt akin to running a half-marathon, but then you go out and collect samples or let drones fly; whatever is on the schedule for the day,” according to Mehlis. “I got insights into so many different fields: I performed ultrasounds, I changed the LED colors on a suit, I steered a drone remotely and I cooked Israeli dishes.”

Communication with the outside world was limited and subject to a 10-minute delay. The limited availability of water made showering a luxury, and sleeping was confined to double bunk beds in wooden cabins, stacked on top of each other.

“Once you get up you leave your private space. There were some small windows that you could look out as you wait in line for the bathroom or brush your teeth in the sink, and se that the desert looks different every time as the light and colors change,” Mehlis recounted. “You don’t see anything except this amazing landscape. That’s really one of the times it felt almost like being on Mars; it felt really distant from your daily life and from the rest of the world.”

After starting most of the days as early as 5 a.m. to conduct experiments before peak temperatures, the team would eat breakfast, share daily housekeeping chores like cleaning — the dust gets everywhere, Mehlis said — and prepare easy vegan meals. The rest of the workday was planned in advance, often until late evening hours.

“We really worked well together. We had a lot of fun. We complemented each other well as everyone had different fields of expertise,” she said. “Each of us brought some personal stuff like a book, pictures and some games so we could have some nights where we could play some card games.”

The crew was assisted by a mission support center in Austria to emulate the ground segment of an actual Mars mission — including flight planners, remote science support and the infrastructure necessary to coordinate complex experiments in engineering, geoscience and the monitoring of psychological affects of isolation. The data obtained from the experiments will be evaluated in the coming months by participating research institutions from Austria, Germany, France, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, the US and the United Kingdom.

Summing up the intense isolated experience simulating Mars conditions, Mehlis said that although they felt like “siblings” while living in the habitat, she did miss her life and family back home.

“I was there as a person and as part of the team, and being a woman was not a topic. It did not make any difference. I did not feel any different or limited,” Mehlis emphasized.

Mehlis underlined the importance of serving as a role model and encouraging young girls to pursue opportunities in science-based fields that are still male-dominated, including training to be an astronaut.

Back from her planetary “visit,” Mehlis has returned to her work as a scientist, now focused on implementation studies for software used by German public health departments for COVID-19 contact tracing. She also hopes to finish her PhD studies in public health, after four years.

But she is already fantasizing about the next space simulation mission.

“If I have time and they want me, then I would definitely do another mission,” Mehlis said. “I am going to stay involved, in some way or another.”

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