Crew Takes Shape for Record-Breaking Mock Mars Mission
Testing a Martian version of the Russian-built Orlan spacesuit for the Mars 500 simulated missions to Mars. The suit has been modified for use in Earth gravity.
Credit: ESA - S. Corvaja, 2010

An 'astronaut' crew of two Europeans, three Russians and one Chinese citizen will walk into a fake spaceship and seal the hatch, but it?s no joke. The team is ready for a record-breaking Mars mission simulation this summer and the European members are already set.

Europeans Romain Charles and Diego Urbina have committed to spend almost a year and a half of their lives living like Mars-bound astronauts as part of the Mars500 experiment, the European Space Agency announced Monday.

The two Europeans and their crewmates will seal themselves inside isolation modules set up at Russia?s Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow. The mock spaceship also includes an interplanetary vehicle, a Mars lander and base, as well as an area carefully sculpted to simulate the red planet?s landscape.

"I?m really excited and happy having this possibility," said Urbina, reportedly with a big smile. "But of course I also have mixed feelings and I?m slightly worried about the unexpected things, mainly psychological, that may happen during the isolation."

Urbina and Charles beat out two other European finalists for the privilege of making mock-space history. Urbina, 26, has Italian-Colombian nationality and wide experience in the space field. Charles, 31, from France, is a quality manager at Sotira, a company producing composite panels.

Their confinement in the mock Mars ship could help determine the human endurance breaking point when faced with living in close quarters with strangers during a 520-day period of isolation, cut off from the rest of the world. Researchers in Europe and Russia will watch and record the crew's psychological and physiological signs throughout the experiment — not unlike a reality show, but hopefully with less of the drama.

Communication is restricted to e-mail and will undergo occasional disruption, just as a real Mars mission might experience due to solar storms or other issues. The crew must also deal with as much as 40 minutes of delay when transmitting back to Earth during the Mars operational phase of the simulation.

"I am proud of these young men, who are not only brave enough to take part in this history-making experiment, but also who are willingly giving so much their time for the benefit of spaceflight and future generations," said Simonetta Di Pippo, director of human spaceflight for the European Space Agency.

The upcoming mock Mars mission marks the final phase of the Mars500 experiment, which began as a 14-day simulation in November 2007 that tested facilities and operational procedures.

Phase two kicked off in March 2009, when six crewmembers managed to survive each other?s company for 105 days.

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