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On Thursday, the hatch was closed on a 520 day mission to Mars. Virtually, anyway. Mars500, a project by the European Space Agency in cooperation with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems is performing a real-time study on effects of isolation during a mission to the red planet.Mars 500 Crew at press conferece. Credit: ESA/IBMP - Oleg VoloshinThe project actually started in 2007, with a 14-day simulation that tested the facilities and procedures, followed by a 105-day isolation period with a six-man crew in 2009. Now, the six, all male crew will spend 250 days "traveling" to Mars, then split-up, while three head down the the Martian surface and the other three stay aboard the spacecraft. The planet-side crew will spend about a month doing operations on Mars, then everyone heads back to Earth, "returning" on November 5, 2011.The crew will live and work as if they were in space (except, of course, with gravity and the ability to quit the mission anytime), similar to the crews in the International Space Station. They'll be required to maintain a daily exercise regimen and limit what they consume -- the spacecraft isn't equipped enough to be a closed loop, so they can eat, drink and use only what they bring aboard. Crew members will be able to talk to their families via the Internet, which will simulate delays based on the spacecraft's "distance" from Earth. Naturally, cameras aboard the ship will monitor psychological and other effects of isolation, one of the primary purposes for the isolation experiment.The spacecraft -- or isolation facility -- is located in Moscow, Russia, and includes four hermetically sealed, interconnected modules, with one additional external module that will act as the Martian surface. The Mars500 crew includes two Europeans, three Russians, and one Chinese. (The 105-day mission had two Europeans and four Russians, while the 14-day mission had six Russians and was the only mission to have a woman crewmember; not counting the notorious 1999 Sphinx mission, during which the one female crewmember was sexually assaulted.)Mars500 facility in Moscow, Russia. Credit: ESA - S. CorvajaMy friend and arts writer, Chris Klimek, recently reviewed an advance copy of Mary Roach's new book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, which will be available this August. In it, "the book shows us the cosmic lengths to which space agencies must go to replicate off-world conditions here on Earth for the purposes of testing their equipment — and more to the point, the puny, hungry, fragile humans who rely on it to survive in a place nature clearly never meant for us to reach." Furthermore, Roach points out, the future of space travel may not necessitate "steely-eyed missile men," but people with the patience to simply get along well with others over long periods of time. The results of the Mars500 simulation should be nothing less than fascinating, for no matter how far we are in our technological advancement to travel to other planets, it's experiments like this that may shed light on if humans are really ready for interplanetary travel.
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