By Jean Christou
On the first of this month, the Cyprus Mail published an April Fools’ story reporting that Cyprus was going to apply to the Mars One project to host one of its simulation locations ahead of the 2024 first-ever mission to the Red Planet.
The mission itself and the search for a simulation site are real, but the Cyprus angle was made up. However, as it turned out, the ‘truth was out there’.
The first inkling of the newspaper’s prescience was a call from George Danos, the chairman of the Cyprus Space Exploration Organisation (CSEO) the day the article was printed, asking where the information had come from because their phones had been ringing all morning.
Assuming he was calling to complain, the newspaper apologised for any hassle and explained the article was an April Fools’ story.
Only he had not called to complain. Although he had guessed the joke when he saw the name of the supposed government official, ‘Xenos Exoginou’, Danos said initially he thought “the story” had been leaked. Unwittingly, the Cyprus Mail had stumbled on the truth.
Danos revealed that discussions had in fact taken place at the initiative of the CSEO, which had talked both with the Mars One mission, and Cypriot government officials to try and push the idea that Cyprus would be an ideal location to create the first Mars One simulation facility, a move that would be a huge boost to tourism and the wider economy, and help the island move into the space age.
The Mars One project plans to create several simulation outposts for training, technology try-outs and evaluation ahead of the 2024 mission. The design is based on six assembled transit modules making up living quarters, private areas, food production, life support systems, surface access, recreational areas and mission operations.
Each location will pose different possibilities and scenarios for testing astronaut candidates. Several regions around the world will be chosen for (psychological) testing and equipment testing for wind, dust, temperature, and isolation.
A location for Simulation Outpost Alpha has not been chosen yet and the project is open to applications from various countries. The simulation training may be turned into a reality TV show with the world voting for the first team who will go to Mars.
The CSEO has only been around since 2012 but has managed in a short time to attract research and professionals who work to push the industry forward. Danos said the organisation’s aims are outreach, research and development “and to seed inspiration from an early age” by working closely with schools to fire up children’s imaginations.
It is also active within the political arena as a bridge between the private sector and government.
It was in this context that the CSEO raised the idea that Cyprus should apply to host the Mars One simulation.
The organisation’s Head of Media & Identity, Colm Larkin said it was one of the ideas the CSEO had discussed with the government in August 2014.
He said the Mars mission organisers had been trying to figure out since 2013 “where they would train these people”.
The CSEO spoke to both sides, including the Communications, Works and Transport Minister Marios Demetriades, and with Mars One co-founder, Bas Lansdorp, from the Netherlands. “Bas was keen to have it here in Cyprus,” said Danos, adding that last summer the CSEO also had several phone conversations and a meeting with the government side.
“They were receptive to the idea,” said Danos but in the end it would all boil down to money, something the government did not have. The other issue would be that as a state, it would be difficult for the government to offer funding to a private initiative.
Larkin said it was not all about actually going to Mars.
“In space the majority of proposed projects are scrapped. It’s not just about going up there,” he said. “Over and beyond the space mission,” he added, it would be a massive boost for Cyprus given the amount of attention the mission is garnering globally. “The benefits for local industry could be phenomenal,” Larkin said.
The CSEO is now trying to focus efforts on the private sector.
“The one thing we need to re-ignite this initiative is to find entrepreneurs in Cyprus. There would be massive opportunities. But the project has to have a national benefit,” said Danos.
“The exposure abroad is massive, so the exposure of Cyprus would be equally massive – for our tourist product, but most importantly for the [space] industry. There could be major visibility to local products abroad that could be measured in a large increase of sales and exports of Cypriot products associated with Mars One’s campaigns and subsequent TV show. Can you imagine Cyprus and local branding appearing in a show that the whole planet will watch when the training starts for the first humans that will go to Mars?”
Danos has even picked out a possible spot to locate the simulation station – Mitsero in the Nicosia district. It has “the ideal” landscape to simulate Mars, he said, plenty of red earth.
Due to the Mars One timetable for a 2024 launch and at several years of training for the astronauts, any simulation would need to be started very soon. “If we still stand a chance we must hurry,” said Danos.
Larkin said however that even if the first one is built elsewhere, there would be others in the future.
“Of course having the exclusivity of the first one, is a big one,” said Danos. “It could become a reality if the potential was recognised,” he added.
In the meantime, the CSEO is working, among other things, on building an observatory for “optical SETI” work.
SETI stands for search for extraterrestrial intelligence, a project that dates back to the early sixties when radio signals were beamed into space to see if there would be any response. Optical SETI is looking for very brief but powerful pulses of laser light from other planetary systems, rather than the steady whine of a radio transmitter. New technology has now optimised earlier efforts.
The Cyprus observatory, privately funded, will be used for research on supernova, exoplanets, NEO (Near Earth Objects) that may be endangering the planet, and deep space readings. It will be located somewhere in the mountains, Larkin said.
Also this coming week the CSEO is hosting its second ‘Space Week’, five days of events with lectures, exhibitions and experiments.
For information visit: www.spaceexploration.org.cy/spaceweek/