THE desolate desert in southern Oman resembles Mars so much that more than 200 scientists from 25 nations have chosen to use it for the next four weeks to field-test technology for a manned mission.

Public and private ventures are racing towards Mars – both former US president Barack Obama and SpaceX founder Elon Musk declared humans would walk on the Red Planet in a few decades.

New challengers like China are joining the US and Russia in space with an ambitious, if vague, Mars programme, while aerospace corporations such as BlueOrigin have published schematics of future bases, ships and suits.

The successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket this week “puts us in a completely different realm of what we can put into deep space, what we can send to Mars”, said analogue astronaut Kartik Kumar. The next step to Mars, he said, is to tackle non-engineering problems such as medical emergency responses.

“These are things I think can’t be underestimated,” Kumar said.

While cosmonauts and astronauts are learning valuable spacefaring skills on the International Space Station – and the US is using virtual reality to train scientists – the majority of work to prepare for interplanetary expeditions is being done on Earth.

And where better to field-test equipment and people for the journey to Mars but on some of the planet’s most forbidding spots.