A manned mission to Mars may be decades away, but an international team of researchers will try to experience what one might be like by locking themselves up in a windowless capsule for a year and half — the time needed for a round trip to the Red Planet.
The all-male crew of three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian and a Chinese won't endure weightlessness, but starting Thursday they will live for 520 days in the spartan conditions of a mock spaceship and follow a harsh regimen of experiments and exercise.
The main task of the Mars-500 experiment is to study the effects of long isolation to help a real space crew of the future cope better with stress and fatigue.
"When everybody interacts with the same people in the same space, habits and behavior become apparent very quickly. These habits may irritate and cause indignation — and even fits of aggression," said Mikhail Baryshev, a psychotherapist who is connected to the program.
The experiment, conducted by the Moscow-based Institute for Medical and Biological Problems in cooperation with the European Space Agency and Chinese space authorities, will simulate a 250-day journey to Mars, a 30-day surface exploration phase and 240 days return trip.
The institute in western Moscow is the nation's premier space medicine center; it has served the Soviet and then Russian space programs since the dawn of the space age. The facility built for the experiment comprises several interconnected modules with a total volume of 550 cubic meters (about 20,000 cubic feet) and a separate built-in imitator of Mars surface for the mock landing.
Dodgy Internet and canned food
The researchers will communicate with the outside world via the Internet, delayed and occasionally disrupted to imitate the effects of space travel. They will eat canned food similar to that currently offered to astronauts on the International Space Station and take a shower once every 10 days — mimicking space conditions. The crew will have two days off in a week, except when emergencies are simulated.
The ESA said the crew will also regularly play video games as part of the agency's project to develop personalized software to interact with crews on future space missions.
French crew member Romain Charles said the experiments will keep the team busy in isolation.
"It's not a jail, it's a program, an experiment," he said. "It will be hard I'm sure, but we have a target to stay here 520 days and we will achieve it."
Both Charles, 31, and Italian-Colombian Diego Urbina, 27, are engineers by training. China's Wang Yue, 26, is an employee at China's space training center.
The 38-year-old Russian captain, Alexey Sitev, has worked at the Russian cosmonaut training center, and the two other Russians, Sukhrob Kamolov, 32 and Alexander Smoleyevsky, 33 are doctors.
The Interfax news agency quoted the project's chief as saying that the European crew members will earn the equivalent of about $97,000 for their participation in the experiment; he declined to cite a figure for Wang.
A similar experiment in 1999-2000 at the same Moscow institute went awry when a Canadian woman complained of being forcibly kissed by a Russian team captain and said that two Russian crew members had a fistfight that left blood splattered on the walls.
Russian officials downplayed the incidents, attributing it to cultural gaps and stress.
A 2009 experiment that had four Russians, a German and Frenchman spending three months in isolation went smoothly.
Radiation poses challenge
Martin Zell, an official with the ESA's Directorate of Human Spaceflight, said the 2009 experiment helped study stress linked with cardiovascular problems and effects on the immune system.
While the isolation experiment may give scientists ample material to analyze the problems faced by a future Mars exploration crew, technological challenges make a real mission a distant prospect. One of the biggest is designing a compact and efficient shield against deadly space radiation.
Both the United States and Russia are working on spacecraft which could be used for a mission to Mars, but design works are still in an early stage.
Last month, President Barack Obama told NASA workers in Cape Canaveral that he was committed to manned space flight and foresaw sending astronauts to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s.