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Simulated Mars mission set to launch

Six-man crew plans 520 days in mock spaceship

Researchers tested spacesuits on a simulated Mars surface during a training session recently at Moscow’s Institute for Medical and Biological Problems. Researchers tested spacesuits on a simulated Mars surface during a training session recently at Moscow’s Institute for Medical and Biological Problems. (Oleg Voloshin/ Associated Press/ IBMP)
By Vladimir Isachenkov
Associated Press / June 3, 2010

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MOSCOW — A manned mission to Mars may be decades away, but an international team of researchers will try to experience what one might be like by locking themselves in a windowless capsule for a year and a half — the time needed for a roundtrip to the red planet.

The all-male crew of three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian, and a Chinese won’t endure weightlessness, but beginning today they will live for 520 days in the spartan conditions of a mock spaceship and follow a harsh regimen of experiments and exercise.

The main task of the Mars-500 experiment is to study the effects of long isolation to help a space crew of the future cope better with stress and fatigue.

“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 who is connected to the program.

The experiment, conducted by the Moscow-based Institute for Medical and Biological Problems in cooperation with the European Space Agency and Chinese space authorities, will simulate a 250-day journey to Mars, a 30-day surface exploration phase, and 240-day return trip.

The institute in western Moscow is the nation’s premier space medicine center; it has served the Soviet and then Russian space programs since the dawn of the space age. The facility built for the experiment comprises several interconnected modules with a total volume of about 20,000 cubic feet and a separate, built-in imitator of Mars surface for the mock landing.

The researchers will communicate with the outside world via Internet, delayed and occasionally disrupted. They will eat canned food and take a shower once every 10 days — mimicking space conditions. The crew will have two days off a week, except when emergencies are simulated.

The space agency said the crew will also regularly play video games as part of a project to develop personalized software to interact with crews on future space missions.

French crew member Romain Charles said the experiments will keep the team busy in isolation.

“It’s not a jail, it’s a program, an experiment,’’ he said. “It will be hard I’m sure, but we have a target to stay here 520 days and we will achieve it.’’

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

The 38-year-old Russian captain, Alexey Sitev, has worked at the Russian cosmonaut training center and the two other Russians, Sukhrob Kamolov, 32, and Alexander Smoleyevsky, 33, are doctors.

The Interfax news agency quoted the project’s chief as saying that the European crew members will earn the equivalent of about $97,000 for their participation in the experiment; he declined to cite a figure for Wang.

An 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 and said that two Russian crew members had a fist fight that left blood splattered on the walls. Russian officials downplayed the incidents, attributing it to cultural gaps and stress.

A 2009 experiment that had four Russians, a German, and a Frenchman spending three months in isolation went smoothly.

Martin Zell, an official with the European Space Agency’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight, said the 2009 experiment helped study stress linked with cardiovascular problems and effects on the immune system.

While the isolation experiment may give scientists ample material to analyze the problems faced by a future Mars exploration crew, technological challenges make a real mission a distant prospect. One of the biggest is designing a compact and efficient shield against deadly space radiation.

Both the United States and Russia are working on spacecraft which could be used for a mission to Mars, but design works are still in an early stage.

Last month, President Obama told NASA workers in Cape Canaveral that he was committed to manned space flight and foresaw astronauts being sent to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s.

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