We can't yet go to Mars, so why not bring Mars to Earth? That's the idea behind the United Arab Emirates' Mars Science City, which will mimic the conditions of Mars in the middle of the desert near Dubai.
Unveiled Tuesday, the project is part of the UAE's Mars 2117 Strategy announced earlier this year, which intends to culminate a century from now with a real city opening on the Red Planet.
Before that can happen—for the UAE or any other spacefaring country—there are a number of challenges to overcome, perhaps most notably that we don't yet have the technology needed to land humans safely on Mars.
But it's not just a transportation problem: Mars would be a tricky environment to live in, thanks to its heavy dose of radiation (the planet lacks a magnetic field like Earth's to block the worst of the dangerous rays), low temperatures and lack of oxygen. Given the constraints of transporting anything from Earth to Mars, future settlers would also require ways of producing water, food and energy from the resources available on the Red Planet—challenges that scientists at Dubai's Mars Science City will be working to address.
Simulating life on Mars while here on Earth is nothing new—scientists have been doing so while camping out in remote destinations including Hawaii and Antarctica, and more such efforts are planned, by countries like China and by commercial space explorers like Mars One.
Although Mars Science City will have lab space and will host year-long research efforts by teams of pseudo-Martians, it will be be dedicated to more than just research: The UAE has announced that it will also feature a museum about humans in space, which presumably means at least part of the facility will be open to the public. Sketches of the facility include a movie theater.
The city is slated to cover almost 2 million square feet in the desert near Dubai, and the design takes into account its location, with some of the walls incorporating desert sand via a 3-D printer. Much of the facility will consist of glass domes.
Mars Science City is budgeted to cost the equivalent of $136 million. Its opening date is currently unclear, as is the start of construction. Another early step in Dubai's Mars 2117 Strategy is the Hope spacecraft, which is due to launch in July 2020 and reach Mars in 2021. Hope will study the atmosphere around Mars.