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.
With less than 48 hours left to go – and after 520 days – the Mars500 crew will officially “open the hatch” on their isolation on November 4. Scientists are eagerly awaiting the last of the experiments, but the inside team is awaiting freedom. They’ve been there since June of last year!
It’s been 17 long months filled with countless hours of experiments. During this simulated Mars mission, these gents have had their brains monitored, bodies scanned, donated samples and kept house. On top of that, they’ve done it so well that scientists can’t wait to get their hands on the results. The most important question of all has already been answered.
And the answer is “Yes.”
“And the scientists have already highlighted the importance of their investigations for terrestrial medical issues.” says Patrik Sundblad, the human life sciences specialist at ESA. “Yes, the crew can survive the inevitable isolation that is for a mission to Mars and back. Psychologically, we can do it.”
Can you imagine what would almost seem like purgatory? Even the most dedicated of us get days off, and knowing you truly aren’t in space would be a difficult hurdle to overcome. “They have had their ups and downs, but these were to be expected. In fact, we anticipated many more problems, but the crew has been doing surprisingly well.” continues Sunblad. “August was the mental low point: it was the most monotonous phase of the mission, their friends and families were on vacation and didn’t send so many messages, and there was also little variation in food.”
However, things didn’t stay bleak for long. Morale returned as the end came into sight after an artificial delay and communications with friends and family began again on September 15th. “The high fidelity of the simulation has been an important factor in the success of the experiment,” notes Patrik. “Simulating a real mission to Mars as closely as is possible on Earth has been very important for the crew. Knowing this mission is really helping to make a real mission to Mars possible has made the challenging long-duration experiment somehow easier for the crew.”
Even as grueling as these simulations might seem to be, it’s still not as stressful as a genuine mission to Mars would be. The reality check is the astronauts would know they couldn’t just be “rescued” in case of an emergency. Add to that weightlessness, radiation and the genuine separation of miles. While you might be able to hibernate in Antarctica to explore some facets of the human psyche, it’s not going to account for everything that goes on in our bodies and minds.“We are using to some extent the same psychological questionnaires with Mars500 as with over-wintering crews at the Concordia base and bedrest studies,” says Patrik. “Comparing them is extremely interesting.”
Yep. The mission is ending – but it’s about a lot more than just six men who chose to isolate themselves for science. It’s about international cooperation and the whole infrastructure surrounding the mission. “The crew has worked individually and as team very well, and the cooperation in the outside world has been outstanding,” observes Patrik. “Russia, China and Europe have maintained the integrity of the unique experiment. This is a very important lesson for any future mission to Mars: it is not only about the spacecraft and its crew, but also about close cooperation on Earth between all the teams and the international space agencies.”
Way to go, Mars500 crew! The first round is on the house…
Six men from Europe, Russia and China on a 520-day mock mission to Mars, have now reached the point in their mission where they have arrived ‘in orbit’ of Mars. Mars500, the first full-duration simulation, is like a real Mars mission, where the crew has been in isolation, living and working like astronauts, eating special food and exercising the same way as crews aboard the International Space Station, and even experiencing lag time in communications. Now after 244 days of virtual interplanetary flight, the crew is getting ready to ‘land’ on Mars on February 12 where they will make three EVAs onto simulated Martian terrain.
Mars500 is not a just a flight of fancy or fantasy, but scientists from Russia and the European Space agency say it is a “pioneering international study of the complex psychological and technical issues that must be tackled for long spaceflights.”
The simulation has been running for more than eight months in hermetically sealed modules imitating a Mars spacecraft at the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow.
“Mars500 is a visionary experiment,” said Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA Director for Human Spaceflight. “Europe is getting ready to make a step further in space exploration: our technology and our science grow stronger every day. Mars 500 today is only an enriching simulation, but we are working to make it real.”
The crew has now opened a hatch between the mothership and the mockup of a lander that, according to script, was launched separately to Mars.
In the coming days, the cargo inside the ‘lander’ will be transferred into the habitat and the lander will be prepared for ‘undocking’ and ‘landing’.
The crew will then divide: Russian Alexandr Smoleevskiy, Italian Diego Urbina and Chinese Wang Yue will enter the lander, while the rest of the crew, Romain Charles from France and Sukhrob Kamolov and Alexey Sitev from Russia ‘remain in orbit’.
The hatch between the interplanetary spacecraft and lander will be closed on 8 February. The lander will undock and ‘touch down’ on Mars on 12 February.
The simulated Martian terrain is actually housed in a large hall alongside the Mars500 modules. The first EVA will take place on February 14, with subsequent sorties taking place on February 18 and 22.
Then the lander will return to orbit and dock with the mothership the following day.
The lander crew will stay in quarantine for three days before the hatch is opened on 27 February and the astronauts are reunited.
After that, the crew is faced with another long, monotonous ‘interplanetary cruise’ before arriving home in early November 2011.
Mars500 participant Diego Urbina (follow him on Twitter at @diegou) provides a tour inside the Mars500 facilities – see how the crew are living and working for the next 17 months in isolation. On June 3, 2010 Urbina and five fellow crewmates from Europe, Russia and China embarked on a 520-day mock mission to Mars, and are living in a crew module in a warehouse in Moscow. See our preview article here.
Six men from Europe, Russia and China embarked on a 520-day mock mission to Mars, heading out to a crew module in a warehouse in Moscow and locking the hatches behind them today. The mission runs from June 2010 to November 2011, and like a real Mars mission, the crew will live and work like astronauts, eating special food and exercising the same way as crews aboard the International Space Station. Additionally their communications with their mission control and anyone else from the rest of the world will have a delay of up to 40 minutes.
A joint project between the Russian space agency and ESA, officials said the mood was serious, intense but very determined in the Mars500 facility at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow as the crew talked to the press and then walked into the modules.
Diego Urbina and Romain Charles from Europe, Sukhrob Kamolov, Alexey Sitev, Alexandr Smoleevskiy and Mikhail Sinelnikov from Russia and Wang Yue from China will have a mission that is as ‘real’ as possible. Their mission is to ‘fly to Mars’ in 250 days, divide in two groups, ‘land on and explore Mars’ for a month and ‘return to Earth’ in 230 days, in their special facility imitating an interplanetary spacecraft, lander and Martian terrain.
“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, 27, ahead of the experiment.
In addition to evaluating many new technologies, Mars500 will test of human endurance and psychological issues of being confined in a small space and being away from family and friends and a normal Earth-life.