Scientists in Russia launched an ambitious Mars spaceflight simulation Thursday – one that will lock six volunteers away for a record-setting 520 days to practice every step of a mission to the red planet without ever leaving Earth.
The Mars500 project, a joint experiment by Russia, the European Space Agency and China, began at 5:49 a.m. EDT (0949 GMT) as the hatches to the mock Mars spaceship were shut at Russia's Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow. Three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese volunteer make up the experiment's six-man crew.
"Goodbye Sun, goodbye Earth, we are leaving for Mars!" wrote French engineer Romain Charles, one of ESA's two crewmembers in the simulation, in a mission diary on Wednesday.
The Mars simulation is expected to last until November 2011, with the crew relying on supplies of food, equipment and other essentials packed inside their mock spaceship. Only electricity, water and some air will be supplied from the outside, ESA officials said. [Graphic: Inside the Mars500 simulator.]
Mars mission on Earth
Charles is locked in the Mars500 simulator with fellow European Diego Urbina, Russian engineers Alexei Sitev and Mikhail Sinelnikov, surgeon Sukhrob Kamolov and physiologist Alexander Smoleevsky. Chinese astronaut trainer Wang Yue rounds out the crew. One of the Russians serves as a backup for the six men inside the simulator.
"The internationalism of Mars500 does not only involve the crew, but also the researchers who come from so many countries that I could easily surpass the word limit in this blog post," wrote Urbina, an Italian engineer, wrote in a mission diary post. "This is for sure a strong point of Mars500, as no human flight to the Red Planet will be possible by one single nation."
Each of the volunteers will earn about $99,000 for their participation in the 18-month endurance trial, which will simulate the 250-day flight to Mars, a landing and surface stay of up to 30 days, and then the 240-day trip back to Earth.
This Mars500 project follows shorter 105-day and 14-day simulations in the same Mars spaceship simulator in 2009. If successful, it will be the longest high-fidelity spaceflight simulation in history, outlasting the real six- and seven-month missions by astronauts and cosmonauts to the International Space Station.
The longest any human has spent in space on a single mission is 438 days, a record set in 1995 by Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov on the Mir space station. But if Russia, NASA and their international partners hope to one day send human explorers to Mars – a goal set in the United States by President Barack Obama in April – much longer missions will be needed.
"The duration of the mission and its focus on behavioral and physiological issues is really the benefit of this study," American researcher David Dinges, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dinges is leading the only American study attached to the international Mars500 project, an $800,000 investigation for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) to study the psychological effects of ultra long-duration isolation. In all, some 100 experiments are planned for the Mars500 crew during their mission.
A mock Mars spaceship
There are no windows in the Mars500 simulator and all communications will be routed through a simulated Mission Control that plans to replicate the 20-minute lag between signals crossing the gulf between Mars and Earth.
"The confinement and isolation and the time lag are very much like what we'll be experiencing with a trip to Mars," Dinges told SPACE.com before heading to Moscow for today's hatch-closing. "Our focus is on stability of attention and measure of performance."
The Mars500 experiment's mock Mars ship contains about 2,152 square-feet (200 square-meters) of space. It is equipped with a medical and scientific research area, living quarters, kitchen, greenhouse, and exercise area. A simulated Mars landscape, Mars base and landing vehicle are also included, along with vital facilities like bathrooms and other essentials.
But while large, the Mars mission simulator is far from palatial, though some modules are lined with wood paneling to increase crew comfort.
"It is very much like three or four Winnebagos connected by tunnels that you crawl through," Dinges said. "I think the Russians did, in fact, do a very good job" recreating the conditions of a Mars spaceship, he added.
The Mars500 crew, like real-life astronauts, will have eight-hour work days, with the rest of each day split for equal amounts of free time and sleep.
The volunteers will have weekends off, but must exercise two hours a day like space station astronauts. They will only get to shower once a week.
"The physiological aspects of the experiments are also of great interest," ESA officials said in a statement. "Their bodies will start to adapt to new conditions – a closed environment with restricted space can quickly lead to poor physical condition."
One of ESA's experiments calls on the Mars500 crew to play tailored video games to study the potential for electronic assistants for astronauts on long-duration crews. The games will be played once every two weeks by three crewmates at a time, and include a multi-player cooperative game, a single-player lunar lander simulation and a collaborative training system scenario, ESA officials said.
Scientists from all of the studies planned during the Mars500 mission are eager to see the results, but there is still some uncertainty into how it will turn out. The Irish online betting service Paddy Power is already taking bets for which crewmember will quit the simulation first.
"It's hard to know what will happen," Dinges said. "I'm just hoping that the crew will be able to complete the mission."
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