Oleg Voloshin  /  ESA
An exterior view of the isolation facility at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow. The facility is host to the Mars500 study that will help us to understand the psychological and medical aspects of long spaceflights.
updated 2/12/2011 2:32:14 PM ET 2011-02-12T19:32:14

A 500-day mock mission to Mars may seem to some like an elaborate stunt, but the ongoing experiment — which has now "landed" on the Red Planet — has great potential to help prepare future astronauts for a true interplanetary trip, experts say.

Volunteer "astronauts" made a simulated landing on Mars Saturday, at the halfway point of the Mars500 mission. The project should help scientists and mission planners better understand — and perhaps mitigate — the psychological and physiological stresses a long space journey would impose on crew members, researchers said.

"This is the start of getting fundamental behavioral ecology data from long-duration confinement," said David Dinges, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is leading a study attached to the Mars500 project. "It's a rare opportunity."

Analog of a Mars journey
Mars500 is a $15 million experiment being run by the European Space Agency, Russia and China. It "launched" in June, when six male crew members were locked inside a windowless mock spaceship at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

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The project simulates a 500-day trip to Mars and back — hence the name. The six crew members — three Russians, two Europeans and a Chinese — successfully went through Saturday's simulated landing after about eight months of virtual interplanetary travel.

The simulation calls for the crew members to spend 10 days on the mock Martian surface, during which they will conduct three "Marswalks" in a large room at the institute with simulated Mars rock and dirt. The mission control team will throw some communication glitches and emergency scenarios into the simulation to see how the crew responds.

Mars500 aims to study what astronauts on a long-duration spaceflight would experience. Understanding the stresses of such a journey is a major step toward preventing or mitigating them, researchers said.

"The goal is, predict everything we can, prevent anything we can before the mission, detect anything that goes wrong in the mission, and intervene once we've detected it," Dinges told Space.com.

Analog studies such as Mars500 are standard practice in spaceflight research. NASA does a great deal of such work, for example, including its annual Research and Technology Studies demonstrations in the Arizona desert (known as Desert RATS).

For analog experiments to provide useful information, they should create conditions as close as possible to those experienced on the surface of the moon, say, or on the long journey to Mars.

"You try to make it as high-fidelity as feasible, within your cost budget and within the architectural plans of what you envision," said Desert RATS mission manager Joe Kosmo, of NASA's Johnson Space Center. "The higher fidelity you can implement into it, the more success you would have."

A high-fidelity simulation
Mars500 is striving for high fidelity. By the end of the study, the astronauts will have been locked inside the spaceship simulator — which Dinges likened to a number of Winnebagos attached together — for about 18 months, though some will get a brief change of scenery when they start making forays onto the virtual Martian surface next week.

This is what's going on in the Mars500 mock mission to Mars.

The crew is following a schedule similar to that experienced by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, ESA officials have said. They have two days off every week, and their work time during the "flight" is filled with maintenance jobs, experiments and daily exercise.

"The value of this is, it has pretty good fidelity from the standpoint of human confinement and operational simulation," Dinges told Space.com. "The Russians are serious about that."

And the crew members themselves — who include doctors, engineers and an astronaut trainer — are close approximations of "real" astronauts.

"These are not just people who want to go in a biodome," Dinges said. "They're at least in the ballpark of the kinds of people who would go in spaceflight."

The Mars500 crew only gets to shower once a week, and conversations with mission control all have a 20-minute lag to replicate the communications gulf between Earth and Mars. The astronauts will each earn about $97,000 for taking part in the experiment.

By the end of the study in November, Mars500 will become the longest high-fidelity spaceflight simulation in history. It should extend researchers' knowledge of the impacts of space travel, since the longest any human has ever spent in space is 438 days. Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov set the record aboard the Mir space station in 1995.

Many different studies
Dinges' study is one of about 100 different experiments being conducted during the Mars500 project. Dinges is looking at how long-term confinement and isolation affect crew members' alertness, stability of attention, sleep patterns and moods, among other things.

He and his colleagues are also quantifying rates of tension and conflict among crew members, and between crew and mission control.

That part of the study should provide particularly interesting information, Kosmo said.

"It's going to put stress on people, I'm sure," Kosmo told Space.com. "How many folks do you know that you'd like to be stuck together with for 500 days?"

Dinges said his team has been getting lots of good data so far during the experiment, though he declined to discuss any preliminary results.

"I don't want to say anything that would in any way influence the behavior of the crew, because that's what we're studying," he said.

The many different Mars500 experiments should provide a wealth of valuable information, Dinges said. The simulation — along with detailed studies of astronauts aboard the International Space Station — should help scientists and mission planners start to get a handle on the physical and psychological challenges long-duration spaceflight will pose to future astronauts.

"This is really a global effort to understand what would happen in a very long mission," Dinges said. "I hope that this is just the first in a number of these opportunities to figure out what some of the key events will be for a long-duration mission."

You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter at @michaeldwall. This report was updated by msnbc.com. For updates, check out the Mars500 project's Twitter updates (@Mars_500 and @Mars500Project) as well as its YouTube video channel.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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