Four Russians, a German and a Frenchman walk into a pod. That may sound like a setup to an off-color joke, but in actuality it's the start of a prolonged isolation study set to begin tomorrow in Moscow. The six volunteers will spend 105 days sealed off from the rest of the world in a special facility, sleeping in tiny bedrooms, to assess the psychological and physical effects that a lengthy flight to Mars might incur. (The 105-day trial is merely a warm-up for a planned 520-day version down the road that would more closely replicate the amount of time needed for a Martian round-trip.)

A BBC correspondent took a tour of the isolation module earlier in the month, reporting that the space offered "a few home comforts, including a large flatscreen TV, a plastic kettle and an empty fridge. But overall it was cramped, airless and without windows." Each individual bedroom is about 34 square feet (3.2 square meters)—roughly the size of a Ford F-150 pickup truck bed. The crew will be monitored remotely by command center personnel, but all communications will be subject to an artificial 20-minute delay to simulate a deep-space-to-Earth link.

The program, known as Mars500, is a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow, which will house the study. The ESA says it had 5,600 applicants for its two slots, each of which comes with a monthly salary of $6,500, according to the BBC. The space agency settled on an engineer from the German army and a French airline pilot; the Russian contingent includes two cosmonauts, a physiologist and a doctor.

According to the ESA, the study's "participants will 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."

Could reality TV be far behind?

Photo credit: S. Corvaja/ESA