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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 8:20 EDT

Mars500 Mission Begins Today

June 3, 2010

An international team of researchers will commence a virtual trip to Mars on Thursday by sealing themselves up in a windowless capsule at the Moscow Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) for 520 days ““ the time required for a round trip visit to the red planet.

The six-member, all-male crew will consist of three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian and one Chinese. 

Although they won’t experience weightlessness, they will live for nearly a year and a half in conditions that mimic an isolated spaceship environment, and will follow a rigorous regimen of experiments and exercise during that time.

The primary purpose of the Mars500 experiment is to study the effects of long-term isolation on humans in order to help future space crews manage the stress and fatigue associated with a real-life mission to Mars.

“When everybody interacts with the same people in the same space, habits and behavior become apparent very quickly. These habits may irritate and cause indignation “” and even fits of aggression,” said Mikhail Baryshev, a psychotherapist associated with the program, in an interview with the Associated Press (AP).

The experiment, conducted by the IBMP in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Chinese space authorities, will simulate a virtual outbound leg of 250 days, followed by a 30-day ‘stay’ on Mars and a 240-day return journey to Earth.

The IBMP institute in western Moscow is Russia’s premier space medicine center, having served the Soviet and then Russian space programs since the beginning of space exploration.

A special-purpose test facility at the IMBP was constructed for the experiment. The facility consists of several interconnected modules with a total volume of roughly 20,000 cubic feet, and incorporates a separate imitator of the red planet’s surface for the mock landing.

The crew will communicate with the outside world via Internet, with occasional delays and disruptions to simulate the effects of space travel.

Once underway, researchers will conduct some 100 tests in the areas of psychology, psychophysiology, clinical diagnostics, physiology and microbiology during their mission.

They will eat canned food and shower once every 10 days “” simulating typical space conditions.  The crew will get two days off per week, except during simulations of emergencies, and will regularly play video games as part of an ESA project to develop personalized software to interact with future crews on real life space missions.

French crewmember Romain Charles said the studies would keep the team occupied during their isolation.

“It’s not a jail, it’s a program, an experiment,” he told the AP.

“It will be hard I’m sure, but we have a target to stay here 520 days and we will achieve it.”

Charles, 31, and Italian-Colombian Diego Urbina, 27, are engineers by training, while China’s Wang Yue, 26, is an employee at China’s space training center.

Russia’s Alexey Sitev, 38, has worked at the Russian cosmonaut training center and will serve as captain.  The two other Russians, Sukhrob Kamolov, 32, and Alexander Smoleyevsky, 33, are physicians.

The crew will need a high degree of autonomy during a mission of this nature, and must be able to maintain and service their technical systems without any outside help.

Scientists are particularly interested in the effects of isolation on the crewmembers’ psychological and physiological health and performance capabilities.

A similar experiment in 1999-2000 at the same Moscow institute went awry when a Canadian woman complained of being forcibly kissed by a Russian team captain, AP reported.  She also said that two Russian crewmembers had engaged in a bloody fistfight.  But Russian authorities downplayed the situation, saying it was the result of stress and cultural differences.

A three-month experiment in 2009 with four Russians was completed without incident.  That experiment helped scientists study stress linked with cardiovascular problems and the effects on the immune system, said Martin Zell of the ESA’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight.

Although the current experiment may help scientists analyze the challenges faced by a future Mars exploration crew, technological obstacles make a real mission an unlikely prospect.  One of the most significant barriers lies in designing a compact, efficient shield against lethal space radiation.

Both Russia and the United States are working to develop a spacecraft that could be used for such a mission, but the projects are still in a nascent stage.

Image 1: Mars500′s six crewmembers plus a Russian backup: ESA-selected Diego Urbina (Italian/Colombian, age 27) and Romain Charles (French, 31); Sukhrob Kamolov (32), Alexey Sitev (38), Alexandr Smoleevskiy (33) and Mikhail Sinelnikov (37) from Russia; and Wang Yue (26) from China. Credits: IBMP/Oleg Voloshin

Image 2: An exterior view of isolation facility at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, Russia. The facility is host to the Mars500 study that will help us to understand the psychological and medical aspects of long spaceflights. A 105-day Mars simulation was held between March and July 2009, a longer 520-day study will follow in early 2010. Credit: ESA

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Mars500 Mission Begins Today