Mock Mars Explorers Gear Up for Simulated Mission

Six volunteers will soon lockthemselves inside an experimental mock spaceship in Russia for more than a yearto see what it's like to be the first astronauts to visit Mars — withoutactually leaving planet Earth.

Slated to begin this summer,the 520-day experiment is the first full-duration simulated missionto Mars, called Mars500, will mimic a mission to the red planet and back asaccurately as possible, including rationed supplies and staged emergencysituations. The isolation test consists of a mock interplanetary spaceship, a Marslander and Martian landscape.

It is the last and biggest partof the Mars500experiment, which began in November 2007 and consisted of a 14-daysimulation that tested facilities and operational procedures. Phase two tookplace in March 2009, when six crewmembers were shut in the facility for 105days.

This latest experiment, whichresearchers say will help to prepare for future human missions to the moonand Mars, will be conducted by Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems(IBMP), with extensive participation by the European Space Agency (ESA) as partof its European Program for Life and Physical Sciences (ELIPS).

The four European candidates,representing ESA, for the mission have been training in Russia since Feb. 24. Onlytwo of those candidates will be selected to join the Mars500 crew, whichcurrently includes one Chinese volunteer and three from Russia.

The full simulatedMars mission will take 520 days total — more than 17 months — starting offin a special facility in Moscow next summer. The mission will consist of 250days for the trip to Mars and 30 days spent exploring Mars' surface, duringwhich half of the crew will move to the Martian surface simulator while thethree remaining crew members will stay in the "spacecraft." The crewwill then reunite for the 240-day-long return journey.

In all, the mission is morethan twice as long as full tours aboard the International Space Station, whichtypically last about six months.

ESA and Russia's FederalSpace Agency are major partners in the $100 billion International Space Stationalong with NASA and the space agencies of Japan and Canada. In all, 16different countries are involved in the project.

Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA's directorof human spaceflight, said that the Mars500 isolation study is a majormilestone in the preparation and research of exploration missions [future Marsbase designs].

"Mars is the ultimategoal of the global human exploration program," Di Pippo said in astatement. "In addition to developing the necessary space infrastructurefor exploration missions, ESA's Directorate of Human Spaceflight also has anongoing program of ground-based analogues and International Space Stationresearch activities to make sure that our astronauts are as prepared as possiblein the future for the physical and mental demands of long-duration explorationmissions, and to develop countermeasures against any adverse effects of such amission."

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Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and a contributor to She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.