Countdown begins to 520 day 'Mars mission'

May 4, 2010 by Elise Menand
European participants for simulated mission to Mars, selected by ESA (European Space Agency) pose during a press conference last December, in Paris. Two of the four men, (from left) German Oliver Knickel, 28, French Cedric Mabilotte, 34, Cyrille Fournier, 40, and Arc'hanmael Gaillard, 32, will be recruited as volunteers to take part in a 520-day simulated Mars mission.

A group of volunteers have started final training in Russia in preparation for being locked up in a capsule for 520 days to simulate the psychological effects of the voyage to Mars.

Three Russians, two other Europeans and one Chinese national will be shut away for one-and-a-half years inside the 180-square-metre (1,000-square-feet) module on the outskirts of Moscow starting late May or early June.

The project, the first full-duration simulated mission to , follows a similar experiment at the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) last year which saw six volunteers shut away for a mere 105 days.

One of the biggest unknowns of an eventual manned mission to Mars will be the of the isolation, and the experiment aims to garner crucial data on the participants' state of mind and body.

The volunteers are now undergoing tests and training in Moscow ahead of the final selection of the "expedition" crew and their back-up.

"The biggest risk of such an isolation is psychological," said researcher Alexander Suvorov who is leading the experiment at the IBMP.

"Of course relations between the crew will not always be harmonious, some will get on with others, others will not. But the priority is to be able to carry out tasks in spite of this."

The volunteers will have their days divided into eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work and eight hours of leisure.

A team of three will spend one month aboard a special module meant to represent the Mars landing craft, while two will also spend time exploring a reconstruction of Mars itself.

The idea is to exactly mimic the timescale of a -- 250 days for the trip to Mars, 30 days on the surface and 240 days for the return journey, totalling 520 days.

The two non-Russian European members of the team still have to be chosen from a shortlist of three.

But the candidates all dismiss the notion they are crazy to be voluntarily locked up for such a period, underlining their enthusiasm for space travel.

"I am doing this above all because this has been a passion since I was young," said Jerome Clevers, 28, a Belgian.

"The conquest of space allows humanity to live better and the next conquest is Mars," he added.

"Boredom will be one of the greatest enemies in the mission, he admitted.

For Frenchman Romain Charles, 30, the hardest thing will be the disruption of contact "with the family, the girlfriend, the friends with whom the distance is going to be difficult to manage."

"And also the sun, fresh air. We will not have this -- there is not going to be a window in the module."

The diet will be no different to that enjoyed by real-life astronauts on the International Space Station and the crew will be given the food at the beginning of the experiment, forcing them to ration out their supplies.

The experiment is a joint venture between the IBMP and the European Space Agency (ESA), which describes the project as a mission "to mimic a full mission to Mars and back as accurately as possible without actually going there."

"This mission might lack some of the glory and feeling of the real spaceflight, but it will be just as tough," said ESA.

The ESA and the US space agency NASA have separately sketched dates in around three decades from now for a manned flight to Mars.

The Red Planet's distance from Earth varies between 55 million kilometres (34 million miles) and more than 400 million kilometres (250 million miles), depending on where the two planets are in their respectives orbits.

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1 / 5 (1) May 04, 2010
Why are we still aiming for a 520 day journey to Mars? Why not invest in more powerful electric plasma engines? It would reduce the overall cost of the mission and the danger of spending too long in transit.
not rated yet May 04, 2010
They all look like best friends in the picture. Lets see how they look after the 520 days.
not rated yet May 04, 2010
I think the bigger issue will be reintergrating them to society after that long of a time period. They will have really bad habits and not be able to adapt quickly to social norms ---

My rommate had a friend who went to jail for a year and he moved in with us for a short time getting back on his feet and his social habits were just horrible - because he had been seperated from 'normal' people for only a year.
1.5 / 5 (2) May 04, 2010
Who cares about 'social norms' society is just pointless in general.
2.3 / 5 (3) May 05, 2010
They are aiming for a 520-day mission because that is what we have. Plasma engines have yet to be space-tested. VASIMIR engines have yet to be space-tested. Suppose they do not work as planned?

Well, then, we are stuck with what we have and it is better to know what possibly can be expected in the event the other engines do not work as planned or that we cannot develop a more powerful VASIMIR or a plasma-based technology than those already prototyped.
1.5 / 5 (2) May 05, 2010
That's not an excuse. The Mars program can wait until we have a real engine system, not the 1965 moonshot jalopy they're trying to push. It's probable human can't make the year long round trip without too much radiation damage. The only solution is to get there faster.
1 / 5 (2) May 05, 2010
The "1965 moonshot jalopy" is not the vessel to be designed for the Mars mission. The Jalopy is the vehicle to get the astronauts into docking with the vessel. No new engine type on the board can launch from ground zero. No prototypes have been tested in space as of yet, so, yes, it is very much an excuse.

By the way, there are forms of radiation shielding theoretically on the whiteboards. None have been tested in space, however.

Nonetheless, I personally do not want to wait until 2230 or later when we finally come up with something more efficient (because we are not testing the prototypes in zero gravity).

I want to see man on Mars by 2036. The technology will come along at a faster pace with the push to get rhere. That generally is how advances in technology work.

There is another good reason to do this study. Even if the newer tech works, it still will take longer to get to outlying planets. What is learned from this study can be of help to other missions beyond Mars.

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