How Virtual Reality Could Help Astronauts on Mars

Virtual Reality Test in High Arctic
A crewmember of the Canadian Forces Station Alert in the High Arctic tests out virtual-reality gear that could help make the long trek to Mars more enjoyable for astronauts. (Image credit: Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine)

Could virtual reality make the long trek to Mars more exciting and less stressful for astronauts?

An ongoing study in the Canadian High Arctic attempts to answer that question. Researchers have outfitted the residents of Canadian Forces Station Alert (CFS Alert) — the most northerly permanently inhabited outpost in the world, at just 508 miles (817 kilometers) from the North Pole — with new virtual-reality gear that gives them access to beautiful scenery from New Hampshire, Australia, Ireland and an English seaside village called Wembury.

The goal is to help find "effective ways to maintain and even improve astronauts' psychological health on long-duration spaceflights" to Mars and other far-flung destinations, project leader Jay Buckey, a former NASA astronaut and a professor at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, said in a statement. [5 Crewed Mars Mission Ideas

Crewmembers will be isolated from their family and friends — indeed, from their entire home planet — for more than a year, during which time they will undoubtedly confront feelings of loneliness and boredom. Interpersonal conflicts could also prove challenging on a Mars mission, since the astronauts will be in close contact with each other at all times.

NASA is already investigating the best ways to mitigate such potential problems. For example, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and his cosmonaut colleague Mikhail Kornienko are more than 9 months into an unprecedented yearlong mission aboard the International Space Station. (Stints aboard the orbiting lab typically last 5.5 months.)

Researchers are studying the behavioral and physiological responses of the two spaceflyers — and comparing Kelly's results to those of his identical twin brother Mark, himself a former NASA astronaut, who stayed on the ground.

The three-year-long CFS Alert study, which just began its second year of field work, aims to contribute to this larger goal as well, by studying the effects of scenic beauty on folks who are isolated in an extreme environment.

"At the project’s conclusion, the CFS Alert crewmembers will be asked to rate the virtual scenes for their realism and immersion, which scenes they preferred and why, and how the scenes affected their mood and stress," Dartmouth representatives wrote in the same statement. "The research is designed to enhance psychological health in space, but it is useful in other settings, such as intensive care units."

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.