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The United Arab Emirates is planning an enormous colony on Mars, but first they are building the biggest Mars simulator right here on earth.

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The United Arab Emirates is really good at enormously ambitious — and just physically enormous — projects.

From the Burj Khalifa to their artificial islands, to the mountain they want to build, to that giant indoor ski resort they have: the UAE is about pushing the limits of engineering, sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes because they’re just feeling it. And now they’re taking that feeling and running with it to Mars, in the form of a giant Martian colony.

But first, they’re planning to build a model colony here on Earth — the biggest Mars simulation anyone has ever done. In 2014, the UAE established their space program and announced their inaugural mission: the Al-Amal, or Hope, orbiter, which will monitor Mars's atmosphere and weather. Mars's atmosphere used to be much thicker, and the causes of its thinning aren’t entirely known.

The planet’s lack of magnetic field probably plays a role, but we don’t have any definitive answers to the question yet. So with Hope, they’re … hoping … to answer that question. It’s set to launch in 2020 and arrive at Mars in 2021.

But the UAE is thinking really long term about Mars, and also has plans to build a whole city up there. They want to get 600,000 people living on Mars. That’s super ambitious, especially considering we haven’t sent anyone to Mars yet, but their deadline is 100 years from now, so they do have plenty of time to figure it out.

And that’s where their most recent Mars-related project comes in: a smaller, model colony in the Emirates. And when I say “smaller,” all I mean is that It’s not going to be nearly as big as the actual planned colony on Mars. It’ll still be pretty darn huge — about two-tenths of a square kilometer in area, or about half the size of the Vatican.

And the whole thing is going to be covered with domes! It won’t be the first simulated Mars habitat, although it will be the biggest. The Mars Society runs two habitats, in Utah in the US and Nunavut in Canada.

And the University of Hawaii has one too. All of these simulations are places for teams of scientists to conduct astrobiological and geological research in environments that are a lot like Mars. And at the same time, they can simulate the realities of living in a scientific settlement on a planet that can’t support you.

There tend to be lots of rules: you can’t go outside of your living space without wearing a spacesuit; your water use is extremely well-regulated, and you can’t communicate off-base without a 20-minute delay. The habitats allow scientists to work on their own projects there, while simultaneously being part of a long-term psychological experiment: how will scientists fare when stuck in a little hab together? How do we meet their psychological and emotional needs?

The UAE’s environment will work on answering similar questions by having a crew live in their habitat for a year. But it’ll also be a sandbox for engineers to test the kinds of systems they’ll need to support a long-term settlement on Mars, something we haven’t really been able to do before on such a large scale. Everything is still very conceptual at this point — the UAE Space Agency hasn’t even said when they’re planning on having this thing built.

But they have released some very preliminary plans for their Dome-inion. That’s not the official name, we’re just really hoping it catches on. The colony will be contained inside three domes, and it’s going to be really crucial to get those domes right.

Earth’s atmosphere filters out lots of UV radiation from the sun, but Mars's atmosphere isn’t thick enough to do that. Which means people on the surface would face everything from bad sunburns to skin cancer unless they’re protected. In theory the domes are going to do the job that Mars's atmosphere can’t, and will be made out of a material that can shield inhabitants from Mars's high UV flux.

Based on some of the concept art they’ve drawn up, it might also be possible to control how much light the material lets through, which would be a way to have the people and plants in the model city living on Martian day/night cycles. No word on what this material is yet, but again, they have a while to figure it out. Since the whole thing will be enclosed, engineers will be able to test the atmospheric regulation systems, water filtration systems, temperature regulation systems — all the usual mechanical stuff that you need to survive when your environment can’t support you.

And they’ll be developing these systems to accommodate a small city, rather than just a li’l habitat or a space station, so it’s a big challenge! But probably the biggest problem engineers will have to solve is how to feed everyone. For a permanent or semi-permanent colony, you can’t rely on shipments of food from Earth.

And while Mars's soil does contain some of the elements and molecules that plants need to grow, they’re not abundant enough to really support agriculture. So we’ll have to apply everything we know about agriculture to this new environment, which is okay because if humans know how to do anything, it farming. We are so good at that.

It’s kind of our thing as a species. That and long-distance running and fully rotatable arms. Anyway, farming: we’re really good at it, especially since we’ve figured out how to manipulate genes.

Genetically modified plants that can thrive in relatively nutrient-poor soil or produce higher amounts of proteins, carbs, or essential vitamins already exist, and of course we have all kinds of fertilizers, both natural and synthetic. So a lot of the foundation work is done there — but we are still a long way from being able to farm in such an extreme environment as Mars. Even with plenty of potatoes and poop.

In addition to all the research going on in the Dome-inion, they’re also planning on building a museum in there, with walls 3D-printed from local sand. The museum will celebrate the history of human spaceflight, and who knows — maybe by a century from now, it’lll inspire 600,000 people to pick up their lives and fly to another planet. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Space!

To learn more about other plans to help us live on Mars, you can check out our episode about the plans for Mars One.