Doing Science on Simulated Mars

By Kate Greene | April 28, 2013 10:16 am

This is the third in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here

The crew’s first meal together in the Mars habitat. From L: Oleg Abramov, Angelo Vermeulen, Kate Greene, Yajaira Sierra and Simon Engler. Photo by Sian Proctor

I haven’t been sleeping well. Or at least not as well as I slept before the mission. I know because I keep track of my sleep with a device that straps to my forehead and sends data about my brain activity, eye movements and facial muscle twitches to a souped-up alarm clock near my bed. The system is called Zeo Personal Sleep Manager, and I’ve convinced my fellow crew mates to use it too. The sleep monitoring is for a research project I’m conducting while here on simulated Mars. The crew has also been filling out sleep surveys and will soon endure a dose of bright, blue-white light on various mornings throughout the mission. And they will take a computer-based cognitive assessment test once a month. To my relief, they’ve been real sports about the whole thing.

All of us came to HI-SEAS with our own projects. Research keeps us busy during the four months, and it mimics the activity of astronauts on an actual Mars mission, who’d likely be studying Martian geology, collecting psychological and physiological data, and keeping up with various engineering tasks. This week, as the main HI-SEAS food study ramped up, the crew also rolled out some of our own projects.

Yajaira Sierra-Sastre is the crew scientist and biologist. She’s interested in the microbes that grow on leftovers as well as surfaces in the habitat. Yajaira’s also exploring microbes on textiles. In one collection of studies, the crew will wear and fill out surveys about socks, gloves, underwear, sheets and towels, all with anti-microbial coatings, from a company called Cupron. In two other textile studies, which began a few days ago, Yajaira asked us to wear prototype exercise T-shirts and pajama tops, some with antimicrobial coatings and some without. We are to wear each garment for its intended use as long as we can stand it. All the while, we record our thoughts via surveys.

NASA is sponsoring the exercise- and sleep-wear studies. And one of the most exciting aspects about them, to me, is that they are identical to those that astronauts on the International Space Station are currently involved in. It takes less space, uses fewer resources, and costs less to send up one pair of super pajamas for a whole mission than to send multiple pairs that would need frequent laundering. NASA wants to know which are the best. I’ll let you know how long I can go with this particular pajama top, which, by the way, might be my favorite pajama top ever.

Simon Engler with robotic companion Pleo. Photo by Sian Proctor

In another study, Simon Engler, crew engineer, has unleashed his pet robot Pleo on us. In the shape of a baby Camarasaurus dinosaur and loaded with sensors and fairly advanced artificial intelligence, Pleo acts a little like a dog and sometimes sounds like a cow. Throughout the mission, we each will have a chance to be Pleo’s primary caregiver and fill out surveys about the experience. Similar to the pajama and exercise wear studies, this experiment has an analog with one on the ISS. Later this year, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata will fly with a small robotic companion. The idea is that the robot could detect stress using built-in cameras with facial recognition and then potentially relieve tension by making faces back at the astronauts and saying particular words.

Simon’s project aims to find out how well the crew bonds with a robotic pet. It’s unlikely a cat or dog will accompany future astronauts to Mars, but robots will most definitely be a part of the mission. And if some animatronic circuitry can help relieve astronauts’ stress and provide companionship, then all the better.

There are a number of other HI-SEAS studies that I’ll detail in later posts. But as for my sleep study, it was inspired by the fact that space is notoriously difficult place to get a good night’s sleep. One reason may be lack of cues from the sun. Morning light on Earth is bright and can effectively reset peoples’ circadian systems.

From previous stories I’ve written as a journalist, I knew that a growing number of researchers are trying to develop lighting systems that could help astronauts sleep better. Bright, blue-white light, in particular, seems to be a good candidate. Humans even have dedicated blue-light receptors that have a direct neurological connection to the part of our brain in control of our circadian rhythms. But, as of yet, there isn’t a lot of data on exactly how certain doses of blue light in the morning affect people’s sleep the subsequent night over the long-term.

So, in collaboration with George Brainard, director of the Light Research Program at Thomas Jefferson University, I developed an experiment that aims to fill in some gaps. I’m using a portable lighting device donated by a Canadian company called Litebook, which has been clinically tested for seasonal affective disorder, and the sleep monitors donated by Zeo. For part of the mission, the crew will get a 45-minute bright light bath shortly after they wake up. I’ll be looking at the Zeo data for any significant changes in individual sleep quality. If the data indicate improvement, this approach could be useful for more than just astronauts; insomniacs on Earth could also benefit from a dose of morning light.

I’ve always been a relatively good sleeper: quick to doze off and difficult to rouse until morning. But Mars has been a jolt to my systems. Everything’s different. I’m living with five other people where I usually live with just one (and a dog and a cat). I’m eating food made of ingredients I’m not used to. Before, I was freelance writer who spent my work hours writing, reading the Internet, and preparing for this mission. Now, I’m a scientist-writer-crew member who participates in daily meetings, troubleshoots equipment issues, manages projects, and has cooking, cleaning and habitat-maintenance duties dictated by a complex schedule. To top it off, these abrupt changes are happening in a place far away from my family and friends, 8,500 feet up on the side of a volcano. In light of all this, I’m not too worried about my sleep. As I get more used to life on Mars, I’m confident my body will adjust.

It also helps that my pajamas are prototype space pajamas and are extremely comfortable.

*Brainard has been integral in getting an entirely new lighting system for the ISS. As the fluorescent bulbs on the space station flicker out, they will be replaced with light-emitting diodes (more durable and more-energy efficient) that will have four modes: morning, daytime, evening and off. The morning light mode will have spectral characteristics similar to the lights I’m using in my experiment.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Select
MORE ABOUT: HI-SEAS, Mars
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About Kate Greene

Kate Greene is a San Francisco-based science and technology journalist whose work has appeared in Discover magazine, The Economist, and U.S. News & World Report, among others. She is presently a crewmember of HI-SEAS (Hawaiian space Exploration Analog and Simulation), a 120-day simulated Mars mission, during which she will live on the rocky slopes of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa inside a two-story dome, eating astronaut food. As a kid, she wanted to be an astronaut. Gastronaut’s not bad either. Her Internet home is kategreene.net.

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