Volunteers Locked Away in Mock Mars Mission
The first Mars500 crew for an initial 105-day experiment prepares to enter the isolation facility on March,31 2009.
Credit: ESA/S. Corvaja.

Six volunteers locked themselves away in a network of metal tubes for the next 105 days on Tuesday in an experiment to study the human stresses of a manned mission to Mars.

Four Russians and two Europeans — a mix of cosmonauts, doctors, an engineer and an airline pilot — shut the metal hatch behind them, sealing themselves inside a habitat at Russia?s Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow.

The three-month endurance test is a trial run for a planned 520-day mock Mars mission by the European and Russian space agencies later this year to study the effects of prolonged isolation on the human body and mind.

?A crew traveling to Mars will face major challenges, not least, how to cope with being confined to a small space and seeing the same faces for one and a half years,? said Martin Zell, head of the European Space Agency?s (ESA) space station utilization department. ?It is of paramount importance to understand the psychological and physiological effects of long-duration confinement, to be able to prepare the crews in the best way possible and to learn about important aspects of the vehicle design.?

German mechanical engineer Oliver Knickel and French pilot Cyrille Fournier represent Europe inside the mock Mars habitat. Cosmonauts Oleg Artemyez, Sergei Ryazansky, sports physiologist Alexei Shpakov and medical doctor Alexei Baranov, meanwhile, round out the crew?s Russian contingent. The six men are the prime crew for the Mars500 project, the joint European-Russian effort by ESA, the IBMP with funding from Russia?s Federal Space Agency.

?Mars500 is the proof that we are preparing for the future,? said Simonetta di Pippo, ESA?s director of human spaceflight. ?[It] is an important part of this global endeavor as it provides us with the knowledge of how to keep a small crew psychologically and physiologically healthy, and ultimately, to succeed in the big challenge to bring humankind to Mars and safely back to Earth.?

During the next 105 days, the six-man Mars500 crew is expected to simulate every aspect of a Martian expedition, including a long cruise to the red planet. After a mock orbital phase, the team would then simulate a landing on the Martian surface and an excursion before another long cruise period back to Earth.

Their habitat, which never leaves its Moscow facility, is a series of connected, but compact, metal tanks outfitted with supplies and equipment to last the full 105-day duration. It includes a Mars descent capsule, kitchen, medical area, research area and a crew compartment.

Altogether, the mock Mars ship contains about 2,152 square-feet (200 square-meters) of space. The Mars500 crew will have voice communications with a simulated Mission Control, as well as with their family and friends. But a 20-minute time lag will be built into the discussions to replicate the one-way transmission delay that would be experienced in a real Martian expedition.

A series of simulated emergencies are planned, and real-life emergencies would first fall to the crew to solve, ESA officials said.

?They will have to cope with simulated emergencies; they may even have real emergencies or illnesses,? ESA officials said in a statement.

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