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 up in a windowless capsule for a year-and-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 from Thursday 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 real 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 days 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 550 cubic meters (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 to imitate the effects of space travel. They will eat canned food similar to that currently offered to astronauts on the International Space Station and take a shower once every 10 days — mimicking space conditions. The crew will have two days off in a week, except when emergencies are simulated.
French crewmember 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."
A similar 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 Frenchman spending three months in isolation went smoothly.
Martin Zell, an official with the ESA'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 Barack Obama told NASA workers in Cape Canaveral that he was committed to manned space flight and foresaw sending astronauts to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s.
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