Life on Mars? No – but mission to Spain is next best thing

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The Independent Online

A rocky and cratered red-tinted river basin in Spain is providing a useful substitute for Mars. The Rio Tinto, or Red River, in southern Andalusia boasts so many Martian properties that two space agencies conducted a "mission" there last month, including a simulated Mars walk.

"It looks like a very alien environment," said Philippe Schoonejans, head of the robotics project office at the European Space Agency (ESA) and one of the mission leaders. "It's on the list of the top-10 weird-looking landscapes, for people who are interested in things like that."

Blending into the sci-fi scenery, ESA tested its €1.5 million (£1.3m) "Eurobot" Mars Rover, a two-armed robot with stereo vision mounted on a rover.

It is designed to perform tasks which are "too dangerous, too difficult, or simply too boring", as Mr Schoonejans put it, for a future Mars explorer.

The Austrian Space Forum also tested its latest equipment: a spacesuit simulator dubbed Aouda X, funded by the Europlanet network. The 45kg suit, which has built-in computers, ventilators and sensors, allows scientists to measure, among other things, the human body's response to harsh conditions on Mars.

"This is a dress rehearsal for the biggest journey our civilisation has ever taken," said Gernot Grömer, executive officer of the PolAres Research Program in Innsbruck, at the start of the mission, which was cut short by heavy rain (unusual weather for both Mars and southern Spain).

Despite the storms, the team of 30 scientists managed to perform a week of trials that mimicked an astronaut's activities after a hypothetical Mars landing.

The Rio Tinto area looks like the red planet because it contains a high concentration of the minerals which are abundant on Mars, such as iron, sulphur and copper. It has attracted miners since pre-Roman times.

The Rio Tinto basin is one of about 20 strange sites – from the Arizona desert to Iceland's volcanic Krafla region – where scientists can test equipment in unearthly settings.