A crew of six volunteers has embarked on a simulated, 520-day Mars mission.
A dry run to Mars. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.
Earlier this month, six volunteers were locked in a model spacecraft in Moscow—and they don't plan to come out until November 2011. They're on a simulated round trip to Mars. For over five hundred days, they'll operate the simulator and live as they would in outer space. An international team of scientists, including biologist Peter Graef of the German Space Agency, will keep tabs on them.
Certainly we have the central question: how can they keep up with their performance—their psychological as well as their physiological performance.
From outside the capsule, the researchers will study changes in the crew's physical fitness, disease susceptibility, mental health, and social interactions. Graef notes that some of the experiments, like tinkering with the crew's diet, may also yield insights that non-astronauts can use. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.
Making Sense of the Research
As you heard, a round-trip to Mars would take 520 days, or the better part of two years. That's a long time to be cooped up in a spacecraft, no bigger than a modest-sized house, with the same five or six people. Aside from all the technological challenges of sending humans that far into space, researchers are trying, to the best of their ability, to find out if humans can withstand such a journey.
The truth is, no one can really know that until we try. But researchers have designed all kinds of experiments to study the effects of long-term space travel here on Earth. In one type of study, volunteers spend weeks or months lying in bed, in order to mimic the effects of weightlessness. Other studies have shut crews in simulators for practice space missions, but the Mars 500 simulation is by far the longest ever attempted.
One of the goals of the project is to rehearse the day-to-day operations of the spacecraft. The crew will be subjected to realistic situations, including occasional emergencies, and will be mostly on their own to solve problems: although they have communication with a mission control center, responses from the center will be delayed by 40 minutes, which is how long it would take to send a message to Earth and back. The researchers will monitor many aspects of the crew's physical and mental health, ranging from blood pressure and disease susceptibility to mood and social interactions.
Of course, the mission won't be exactly like a real mission to Mars. The volunteers (most of whom are not astronauts) will be evacuated from the capsule if they're in serious danger. And the simulation will be missing one key element of space travel—weightlessness—that poses a risk for long-term space travelers. It's known that spending time in low gravity depletes bone calcium, weakens muscle tone, and may cause other problems, including, according to some studies, a compromised immune system. However, it just isn't possible to simulate zero gravity for extended periods of time on Earth, so the researchers will have to factor results from other studies into their conclusions and recommendations.
The capsule also will make an interesting laboratory for some broader questions. For instance, the researchers will tinker with the crew's diet throughout the mission. Regular dietitians don't get the chance to study the effects of dietary changes in such a controlled environment, so the findings could have implications for the general public that couldn't have been found otherwise.
Now try and answer these questions:
- What is the Mars 500 mission?
- What aspects of the Mars trip will be simulated?
- Why is it important to include a 40-minute delay in communication with the "command center"?
- What psychological and social issues do you think would come up in this environment?