July 20st, 2019, will mark the 50th anniversary of the historic Moon Landing, where astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface for the first time. This accomplishment was the high point of the “Space Race” and has remained NASA’s crowning achievement in space. In the coming years, NASA will attempt to return to the Moon, where they will be joined by several other space agencies.
To prepare for these eventual missions, a group of cosmonauts recently commenced an isolation experiment that will simulate a long-term mission to the Moon. It’s called the SIRIUS-19 experiment, which began earlier today at 02:00 p.m. local time (04:00 a.m. PDT; 07:00 a.m. EDT) at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow.
This experiment is a collaborative effort between the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the French space agency – the National Studies for Space Exploration (CNES) – the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) and NASA. For this analog experiment, three female and three male cosmonauts will spend the next 122 days in the IBMP simulated lunar facility (aka. the NEK Habitat) in Moscow.
This facility was used as part of the Mars500 Study, a series of cooperative isolation experiments conducted by Roscosmos and the ESA from 2007 to 2011 to simulate a long-duration mission to Mars. Repurposed for lunar missions, this facility is now part of the SIRIUS program, which aims to address the challenges posed by long-duration lunar missions.
As Christian Rogon, the SIRIUS Project Manager at the DLR, explained in a recent DLR press release:
“Only biomedical research of this nature will make future journeys to other celestial bodies possible. Six of these experiments have been developed in Germany… However, before any meaningful research can be conducted on the Moon, crews must be trained to successfully complete such a mission. For this, as in SIRIUS-19, they must be able to live for a long time under conditions in which they will be subjected to a mixture of psychological stress, due to total isolation, and a high degree of pressure to perform well. Only in this way can we learn more about the interaction of body and mind in isolation.”
Commanding this experiment is 44-year-old Russian cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin, who went to space in 2012 and spent six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as part of Expedition 33/34. He will be joined by American astronauts Reinhold Povilaitis and Allen Mirkadyrov, and Russian cosmonauts Daria Zhidova, Anastasia Stepanova and Stephania Fedeye.
“The interesting thing for SIRIUS-19 is that the crew is composed of an equal number of men and women,” said Rogon. “How does a mixed-sex crew cope with the challenges of isolation? How does it deal with potential mishaps? How does it react to increased performance pressure? These are all fascinating questions, and we are very curious to find out the answers.”
The experiment will commence with a three-day journey to the habitat, which simulates the amount of time it would take to reach the Moon. Shortly thereafter, they will conduct a simulated rendezvous with the part of the habitat that represents the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) – a proposed space station that will begin construction in the next decade – and spend the next 100 days conducting a series of experiments.
The team will also have a daily routine that will simulate living and working conditions aboard the LOP-G. This will consist of daily health and fitness checks, sporting activities, safety training, regular cleaning and maintenance, and docking/undocking procedures. They will also receive regular deliveries of food and supplies, which like the ISS, will take place every 30 days.
Just to keep things interesting, the crew will also have to deal with some unexpected developments during their stay. As Rogon explained:
“Since the monotony of working in a very limited space can become a major challenge, the crew will also have to respond to unexpected technical failures and malfunctions, such as a five-day break in communications with ‘ground control’.”
For eight hours a day, the team will also be carrying out scientific experiments, of which a total of 70 have been prepared – six of which were provided by the DLR. For example, the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne is using this mission to test a new training program that allows astronauts to practice manually docking spacecraft with space stations.
The Institute of Space Systems at the University of Stuttgart, under the guidance of former German astronaut Reinhold Ewald, has also devised a project that focuses on docking maneuvers. For this experiment, the six cosmonauts will have to simulate steering the new Russian PTK Federatsiya spacecraft and docking it with the LOP-G.
In addition, the German Sport University Cologne devised two experiments to investigate the most effective training methods for combating the effects low-gravity has on astronaut physiology and psychology. These include muscle atrophy and bone density loss, but also extend to diminished cardiovascular health, visual impairment, and mental well-being.
Sleep doctors from the Berlin Charité hospital are also testing if sleep-deprivation will have an impact on the performance and nervous systems of well-trained ‘cosmonauts’ in isolation. In addition, the Beuth University of Applied Sciences in Berlin are testing specialized silver and graphite surfaces to see if these might prevent or combat bacterial contamination on long-term missions.
In addition, the crew will take part in a simulated mission to the lunar surface. “Exactly halfway through the SIRIUS isolation study, four ‘cosmonauts’ will land on the lunar surface in a small capsule,” said Rogon. “Once there, they will carry out several ‘Moon walks’ while wearing spacesuits, collect samples and prepare a ‘settlement’ on the Moon – a very special experience.”
During the last 30 days of the experiment, the crew will also simulate conducting surface explorations using remote-controlled rovers. They will also conduct several more docking simulations and finish the last of their experiments before returning to Moscow.
This is the third SIRIUS experiment, the first of which took place in 2017 (SIRIUS-17). For this experiment, three NASA astronauts and three Roscosmos cosmonauts spent seventeen days in the IBMP habitat. In the coming years, several more simulations of increasing duration are planned, which include an eight-month mission in 2020 and a 12-month mission in 2021 (SIRIUS-20 and 21).
These and other experiments are helping to prepare space agencies and astronauts for the next generation of lunar exploration, the lessons of which will also be applied to future missions to Mars and other astronomical bodies.
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