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Crew of 520-day mock Mars mission nears mock landing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Mars500 experimental enclosureAfter nearly eight months’ journey in a small, enclosed craft, the crew of the Mars500 mission is nearing the turning point of its voyage—arrival and disembarking at the Red Planet. They will spend 10 days there, exploring the surface in a series of excursions, before returning to their craft and beginning the lengthy trip home.

At no point in any of this exploration, however, will the six-member Mars500 crew actually leave the surface of Earth. The entire mission is a simulation, housed in a series of capsules at Russia’s Institute for Biomedical Problems in association with the European Space Agency. But the isolation and cramped confinement of the mission are real, even if the journey itself is not.

The Mars500 program is a test meant to simulate some of the mental and physiological effects that a real Mars crew would have to endure on a long journey in close quarters. (Other physical hazards, such as dangerous levels of radiation and the atrophying effects of weightlessness, would also be in play in a real Mars mission.) The six men—three from Russia and one each from China, Italy and France—entered the 550-cubic-meter facility in June 2010, and the plan is to keep them there until the end of the simulated Mars round-trip in November 2011.

On February 12 three of the crew will "arrive" at Mars in their landing module while the other three remain in the main spacecraft. On February 14 they will begin to explore the simulated Martian surface [brown enclosure in diagram above], a 1,200-cubic-meter chamber in which the crew will wear spacesuits. For added realism all communications with mission control will endure an artificial 20-minute delay to mimic the light-travel time between Mars and Earth.

Mars500 is not, of course, the first experiment to lock a number of human participants inside a closed facility. The mission builds on a 105-day pilot project that wrapped up at the Institute for Biomedical Problems in 2009. And, back in the 1990s, there was Biosphere 2 in Arizona. Intended to be a self-contained ecological system, Biosphere 2 was beset first by low oxygen levels and pest infestation and then by managerial infighting. The science never outpaced the project’s bad press, and the building is now a research station of the University of Arizona.

Diagram of the Mars500 enclosure: IBMP





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  1. 1. michael T 8:59 pm 01/27/2011

    wonder how much they’re paying the ‘crew’

    Link to this
  2. 2. hotblack 2:37 am 01/28/2011

    That’s it? That’s all this article inspires you to think??? How much the crew are getting paid. Nevermind the vision, or the useful knowledge & tech we might glean from this, lets just say being that shortsighted is okay. Nevermind the millions and millions it cost to build all the equipment and all the engineering and all the planning and all the infrastructure that it took to get this far. You want to know how much the crew is getting paid. Millions. Actually, all the money in the whole project goes straight into their pockets. And what’s more, they actually do it for not less than one cent per stingy-ass no-vision taxpayer, but, seventeen hundred dollars per taxpayer per year over the next decade. How? By calling it the iraq war and tricking you into thinking it was to kill those godless oil hoarders, that’s how. All that stuff you see on tv, it’s all digital. You got scammed.

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  3. 3. TerryHouston 9:00 pm 01/28/2011

    This is fantastic!

    It’s a shame that foreign countries are doing this instead of the United States. Perhaps there are too many regulations and politics that stop progress in our country anymore.

    Come on! Wouldn’t you love to volunteer for this program?

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  4. 4. ennui 9:58 pm 01/28/2011

    For a fraction of the cost of the Heavy Lifter, a real Space Craft could be constructed. We could even had the technology of it applied to a Shuttle.
    The Shuttle would have arrived at the ISS in one hour, the Moon in a Couple of hours and Mars within one day.
    No rockets or heat shields would have been needed and the craft would have a forcefield, that would protect the craft and Astronauts from collisions with Space
    Debris and Radiation.

    Link to this
  5. 5. jack.123 10:33 pm 01/28/2011

    Managerial infighting is a huge understatement,Near homicidal is closer to the mark.This probably why we haven’t done any more studies,and is why no Americans were invited to this latest study.It’s pretty bad press to have your astronaut’s hurting or killing one another.As a incident in Florida shows us,there are some flaws in NASA’s program that must be worked out before we go on any years long trips in space.

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  6. 6. ironjustice 12:04 pm 01/29/2011

    Complete waste of taxpayers money .

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  7. 7. johnathan 6:53 am 01/31/2011

    if there was life on mars long ago maybe there might be oil? maybe tha why goveremtns want to send crews there.

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  8. 8. Markwonder 9:37 am 01/31/2011

    No, all the liberal blather aside, I do wonder how much they are paying the crew for this. This is a large chunk of their lives spent on this experiment. Interesting.

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  9. 9. Markwonder 1:22 pm 01/31/2011

    No, all the liberal blather aside, I do wonder how much they are paying the crew for this. This is a large chunk of their lives spent on this experiment. Interesting.

    Link to this
  10. 10. bucketofsquid 1:28 pm 02/2/2011

    This is a great way to address some of the challenges of living in an enclosed environment but don’t we already have that knowledge to some degree? After all, we have submarines that are fully self contained for long periods. We could simply modify one to stay submerged for months instead of weeks and get the same result couldn’t we?

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  11. 11. indeseo 1:15 am 02/3/2011

    you have no sense of wonder – and what a shame that is

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  12. 12. Didonai 6:27 pm 02/4/2011

    I attended a music concert on the hillside at Arcosanti during the late 1990′s and just as the moon began to rise suddenly all the lights went out on the stage and a very bright spotlight was turned on the crowd on the hillside near where I and friends sat. I could see security people crawling on their hands and knees toward a man who held a rifle aimed my way. I quickly stood up and pointed behind me and yelled he has a gun and he’s over there! Quickly everyone move between me and the real rifleman just as the cops jumped him. The spot light was turned off so no one with a camera could take pictures of the man getting kickedchitless by all those muscular law enforcement peeples. Oh, they got the rifle too. I never returned to Arcosanti. Too much violence, for sure.

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  13. 13. Didonai 6:28 pm 02/4/2011

    PAID??!! NOBODY gets paid in Russia. Scientists certainly don’t get paid. They are supposed to do
    it for NOTHING but the thrill of discovery and the
    honor of public service. LOL

    Link to this
  14. 14. Didonai 6:29 pm 02/4/2011

    I’d rather go to Mars than Jersey Shore.

    Link to this

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