The European Space Agency is looking for six brave volunteers to sit in locked chamber for 520 days to simulate the isolation of a space flight to Mars, a trip that in real life would take around 900 days. The ‘mission’ is part of the Mars500 programme being conducted by ESA and Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) to study human psychological, medical and physical capabilities and limitations in space [Physorg.com]. But what will scientists actually learn from locking these folks up for a year and a half on Earth, especially when the real mission is close to twice as long?
Although the volunteers will simulate a Mars mission as best they can, the most dangerous aspects of space travel won’t be replicated–like, for example, the radiation from cosmic rays. Volunteers will also be able to walk out at any time if they feel unsafe, which isn’t an option on a real space mission. At least one researcher argues that scientists could learn more by studying the historical diaries of long distance explorers to learn how people cope with stress while traveling through the unknown. Other scientists say studying people in Antarctic research stations, nuclear submarines, or astronauts aboard space stations orbiting Earth would be better strategies. Still, there are many things the Mars500 experiment will reveal that historical records cannot. Volunteers will undergo an array of tests that will monitor stress and hormone levels, immune response and sleep patterns, as well as group dynamics [New Scientist].
Space mission simulations have been conducted in the past—a similar 105-day study just ended in July—and they often have interesting results. In one event that made the news on a space mission simulation in 2000, a man twice tried to kiss a woman against her will. As a result, locks were installed between different crew compartments [New Scientist]. These simulations sound like a scientific version of the T.V. show Big Brother.
Better hurry if you want to sign up, the deadline is November 5th!
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