Mars500: study overview
Human exploration of our Solar System is an important focus for ESA. The Agency has started on the path to making this a reality in the future. Making sure that our astronauts are prepared mentally and physically for the demands of long exploration missions is imperative a mission’s success.
In light of this, ESA is undertaking a cooperative project with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow, called Mars500.
ESA’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight has a long tradition of conducting research on the physiological and psychological aspects of spaceflight. ESA’s bedrest studies, in particular, are at the forefront of scientific research to understand how the human body reacts under weightless conditions, in order to devise effective countermeasures and enable humans to undertake long missions in space effectively. Mars500 is part of these scientific efforts to prepare for human exploration missions.
When preparing for long space missions beyond the six-month range currently undertaken by Expedition crews on the International Space Station (ISS), medical and psychological aspects become an issue of major importance.
When contemplating missions beyond Low Earth Orbit, such as to the Moon and Mars, daily crew life and operational capabilities may be affected by the hazardous space environment, the need for full autonomy and resourcefulness, the isolation, the interaction with fellow crewmembers and other aspects.
A better understanding of these aspects is essential for development of the elements necessary for an exploration mission. Whereas research onboard the ISS is essential for answering questions concerning the possible impact of weightlessness, radiation and other space-specific factors, other aspects such as the effect of long-term isolation and confinement can be more appropriately addressed via ground-based simulations.
The purpose of the Mars500 study is to gather data, knowledge and experience to help prepare for a real mission to Mars. Obviously there will be no effect of weightlessness, but the study will help to determine key psychological and physiological effects of being in such an enclosed environment for such an extended period of time.
The participants act as subjects in scientific investigations to assess the effect that isolation has on various psychological and physiological aspects, such as stress, hormone regulation and immunity, sleep quality, mood and the effectiveness of dietary supplements.
The knowledge gained during the study is invaluable in providing the basis for the potential development of countermeasures to deal with any unwanted side effects of such a mission, and also to help in astronaut selection procedures, and at a modest expense.
On the European side, the Mars500 programme is financed from the European Programme for Life and Physical Sciences in Space (ELIPS) and involves scientists from across Europe.
In order to simulate a mission to Mars, six candidates (three Russian, two European and one Chinese) will be sealed in an isolation chamber. This group will be chosen to encompass working experience in many fields, including medicine, engineering, biology and computer engineering.
Part of the chamber simulates the spacecraft that would transport them on their journey to and from Mars and another part will simulate the landing module that would transfer them to and from the martian surface.
Following the completion of an initial 105-day isolation period in 2009, a full 520-day study will be carried out. Candidates for this test began their mission training in February 2010 and the beginning of the isolation period is planned for June 2010.
Once sealed into the chamber, the candidates will have only personal contact with each other plus voice contact with a simulated control centre and family and friends as would normally happen in a human spaceflight mission. A 20-minute delay will be built into communications with the control centre to simulate an interplanetary mission and the crew will be given an identical diet to that used for the International Space Station.
As with a human spaceflight mission, the crew will be free to take certain personal items, as well as being supplied with books, films, personal laptops and can occupy themselves with physical exercise or their own studies.
During the isolation period the candidates will be simulating all elements of the Mars mission, travelling to Mars, orbiting the planet, landing and return to Earth.
The crew will have to be self-reliant, and organise a great deal of their daily tasks. They will be responsible for monitoring and maintaining the health and psychological states of themselves and each other, monitoring and controlling and maintaining systems, including life support, control resource consumption, carry out standard and non-standard cleaning and maintenance, as well as fulfilling scientific investigations.
There will be a 7-day week in place with two days off with a rotational system in place to account for night shifts. Non-standard and emergency situations will also be simulated to determine the effect of a decrease in work capability, sickness, and also failures of the onboard systems and equipment.
During 'Mars surface operations' the crew will be divided into two groups of three people each. Once the first group exits to the martian surface, the hatch between the martian simulation module and the rest of the facility will be closed by the second group and opened again only when the Mars surface stay simulation has ended.