Mars mission touches down in the Australian Outback

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The Independent Online

The landscape of Outback Australia lacks the pink sky, toxic atmosphere and freezing temperatures found on Mars, but a team of international scientists believes the wilderness may offer more similarities with the red planet than anywhere else on Earth.

The landscape of Outback Australia lacks the pink sky, toxic atmosphere and freezing temperatures found on Mars, but a team of international scientists believes the wilderness may offer more similarities with the red planet than anywhere else on Earth.

Ten astrobiologists, geologists and aerospace engineers united by one passion ­ the desire to see Mars explored by humans ­ will set off on an expedition through central Australia's red desert next month to identify the most promising site for testing equipment that might be used in a manned Mars landing.

The two-week trip has been organised by the Australian branch of the Mars Society, an international lobby group whose members include eminent scientists and academics. Two representatives of Nasa, the American space agency, are expected to take part in a private capacity. A shortlist of sites has been drawn up by Dr Jonathan Clarke, a geologist at the Australian National University in Canberra. He favours Sturt Stony Desert in South Australia, which he says has many features reminiscent of the surface of Mars, including a rocky terrain, lack of vegetation, dry river channels and craters.

Manned exploration of Mars has been discussed within Nasa and the Russian space agency since the 1950s but funding has never been made available. Dr Clarke's interest is not connected with his university work. "A lot of my colleagues think I'm a nut," he said.

Another Australian expedition member, Professor Malcolm Walter, director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology, says no site on Earth could replicate the hostile environment of Mars.

"There is no oxygen, the atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, and atmospheric pressure is so low that if you had a hole in your space-suit, your blood would boil and your lungs would blow up," he says. "There is no ozone shield, so you would get frazzled. Temperatures fall to minus 100 degrees [Celsius]."

Professor Walter, who has written a book called Is There Life on Mars?, says the answer is a tentative yes. "It seems likely that there is simple microbial life living underground," he said. "But as for creatures who look like us, or aliens, emphatically no."

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