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Science

Astronauts walk on 'Mars' as stress test reaches halfway point

A team of astronauts who boarded a simulated spacecraft in June, 2010, have finally reached 'virtual Mars.' One goal of the experiment is to study the effects of isolation over the 520-day return trip to the red planet.

Two astronauts test space suits used in the Mars 500 experiment

The astronauts will explore their fake Mars for a few weeks

It may have gone largely unnoticed by the outside world, but a three-man astronaut crew just made history by landing on "Mars" on Monday.

True, it was only an ersatz planet located on Russian soil. But the landing was a significant milestone in an ongoing experiment meant to show whether sending humans to the red planet in reality is at all feasible in future.

The virtual martian landscape the astronauts explored was created in a hall at the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IMBP) in Moscow. Still, Italian crew member Diego Urbina was clearly aware that, virtual planet or not, he also was writing history.

"Today, as I see this red planet surface, I can already feel how inspiring it will be to look through the eyes of the first human to step on Mars. I salute the explorers of tomorrow and wish them Godspeed," Urbina said.

Feet on the ground

Urbina and his Russian colleague Aleksandr Smoleyevsky spent one hour and 12 minutes on the faux-martian surface before returning to their landing vehicle to rejoin Wang Yue from China.

In the coming week, two more sorties will follow, after which the astronauts will start their virtual ascent back to their orbital mothership, where they have been living with three other crew members since June last year.

The six volunteers, including two Europeans, three Russians and one Chinese, are taking part in the first experiment to simulate a manned mission to Mars in real time over 520 days. That is the time necessary to fly to Mars, spend several days on the surface and return to Earth. One of the aims is to see how humans will react, physically and psychologically, to such an undertaking.

The results so far have been encouraging.

Volunteers of simulation experiment of 520-day mission to Mars (L-R front row): Cosmonaut training centre specialist Alexei Sitev, military doctor Alexei Smoleyevsky, cosmonaut training centre engineer Mikhail Sinelnikov, (L-R rear row): cardiologist Sukhrob Kamolov, European Space Agency specialists Charles Romani of France and Diego Urbina of Italy, Chinese astronaut training centre specialist wang Yue, pose for the media after they were introduced as participants of the project at Moscow's Research centre of Medical and Biological problems

The team's simulated flight to and from Mars will last a total of 520 days

"They feel OK," IMBP deputy director, Boris Morukov, said. "Once every two months they undergo a thorough medical check-up, their physical condition is being tested all the time, and there is ongoing psychological monitoring. Many have even improved their physical abilities.

Self-reliance

The crew, he said, are still highly motivated, even if some inevitable signs of fatigue are beginning to show. The men have been living together for months in a rather large but still limited space. They have also been subjected to various emergency situations, like the disruption of their main energy supplies. But according to Morukov, the crew coped very well with these calamities.

"What is so typical of a flight to Mars is that it is fully self-supporting," he said. "Spacecraft in orbit are controlled from the Earth, but here the crew has to take decisions independently, on all problems and emergencies."

It would also be impossible for the crew of a Mars voyage to simply turn the ship around and head home if they needed help, Morukov said.

"It is impossible to return to the earth in case of an emergency," he said. "This is a psychological factor which is difficult to simulate, it is difficult to make them believe that they are surrounded by space, and not in Moscow.''

But so far, the simulation appears to have been highly convincing. The first walk on the virtual martian surface was monitored from Russia's very real mission control center outside Moscow. Even the communication with the crew had sounded as if the signal, indeed, had to bridge the whole distance from the Earth to Mars and back.

The crew will spend most of this year on board their spacecraft. Their long, simulated journey back to Earth begins on March 1. The virtual landing on Earth is scheduled for early November. A real manned mission to Mars, if it ever takes place, is unlikely to happen before 2030.

Author: Geert Groot Koerkamp (sjt)
Editor: Sam Edmonds

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