May 19, 2010

Crew Readies For Simulated Mars Mission

Six men are about to embark on a 520-day simulated journey to the Red Planet in a sealed-off module that will test how long it takes for isolation to affect humans.

The six men, three Russians, an Italian-Colombian, a Frenchman and a Chinese man, will be locked up in a set of cramped compartments for the record-breaking Mars500 simulated flight that will last until November 2011.

The men who enlisted in the project called themselves "trailblazers" Tuesday, saying they were ready to face the stresses of isolation.

"We are trailblazers, but while this is very exciting, it brings a certain responsibility. I echo my teammates in saying we will do everything to be successful," Russian volunteer Mikhail Sinelnikov told reporters in Moscow.

The crew will be locked in a 1,000-square-foot spaceship module on the outskirts of Moscow for nearly 18 months beginning on June 3.

"It will be trying for all of us. We cannot see our family, we cannot see our friends, but I think it is all a glorious time in our lives," said Chinese participant Wang Yue, who is the youngest volunteer at age 27.

The mission will set the stage for "future generations who will actually travel frequently to Mars," said Italian-Colombian participant Diego Urbina.

The project, which is the first full-duration simulated flight to Mars, aims to test the psychological and physical toll that such an event might actually place on humans.

The idea is to reproduce the timescale of a mission to Mars. It would take 250 days to reach the Martian orbit, after which part of the crew would spend 30 days on the surface. The return trip would last another 240 days, totaling 520 days, cut off from all of humanity in a mock spaceship.

"This 520-day flight to Mars ... is unprecedented in its overall duration," Martin Zell, European Space Agency (ESA) head of the experiment, told Reuters.

"I think when talking about a human mission to the Red Planet, it will probably still take 20 or, more likely, even 30 years to go there," said Zell, who is also in charge of ESA human missions to the $100-billion, 16-nation International Space Station (ISS).

Each of the six men are allowed just 10 square feet of personal space aboard the simulation module. The men will stick to a seven-day work week, with two days off, except when special emergency situations are simulated.

The crew will live together and work like ISS astronauts, and their life will imitate that of ISS members. The men will carry out daily tasks such as maintenance, science experiments, and exercise. Once the module reaches the mock Martian orbit, the team will be divided, with three moving to the surface of the planet, while the other three stay in the orbiting spacecraft for one month.

To make things as real as possible during the simulation, the crew will have to live aboard the module like they would if they were on a real mission.

Frenchman Romain Charles, 31, said what most surprised him were the sheer number of neatly piled space suits on board the module. "We don't wash them. When the clothes are dirty we throw them out -- out to outer space," he said laughing, adding the crew would only get to shower once every ten days.

The Mars500 crew's contact with the outside will also be delayed and often disrupted to mimic a real situation, preventing chats with family and friends and leaving the crew to fend for themselves during a crisis.

To fight the risk of depression and break up the monotony of daily routines, the crew can only count on each other, Charles told AFP.

Yue said he was also instructing teammates in the Asian martial art of Tai Chi to help them overcome the physical and mental stress of confinement.

All crew members know some English, but not all speak Russian, another working language during the trip. "If we fail to understand each other, we will employ body language," quipped Russian crew member Sukhrob Kamolov.

Communications between the module and Earth will include only e-mail, with connections being disrupted occasionally. There will be a maximum 40-minute delay in transmissions, as on a real Mars mission.

The Mars500 mission follows a similar experiment at the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) last year that saw six volunteers locked in the module for 105 days.

The joint venture of the IBMP and the ESA describes the project as an attempt "to mimic a full mission to Mars and back as accurately as possible without actually going there."

However, it will be impossible to simulate all aspects of a real space mission, such as microgravity and exposure to radiation, project director Boris Morukov said. But the crew will experience weightlessness, which can have a debilitating effect long term, deteriorating muscle and bone tissue. The physical toll would be faced once the crew leaves the training module.

Head of ESA's mission to Russia, Rene Pischel, says a real flight to Mars would not happen until 2030 or later. "But a mission to Mars is not so much of a technical problem today. The biggest technical challenge is the money," he told AFP.

"To put a big pile of money on the table you need a real good reason, and that is one of the reasons that this project is so important in convincing people that it could happen safely," he said.

China's Wang Yue, the only crew member of the Mars500 simulation trained as a professional astronaut, mentioned competition in space -- in line with Beijing's ambition to launch its crew to Mars one day.

"I think Mars500 must be a milestone in the human space race, in human space history," Wang told a news conference. "Space exploration is difficult and huge, it needs international cooperation, so I am lucky to be here."

Other crewmembers shared his sentiments.


Image Caption: Mars500 experiment facility in Moscow. Credits: ESA - S. Corvaja


On the Net: