Mars500 ‘Lands’ on the Red Planet

BY Lauren Knapp  February 14, 2011 at 5:52 PM EST

On Monday, an international crew of six men landed on “Mars.” They stepped onto a wide plane of red dust, sand and rock beneath a black and starry sky, where they will conduct experiments for the next week.

The only catch is, this arid landscape is actually inside a warehouse in Moscow.

The event marks the approximate halfway point of a 520 day simulated voyage to and from our planetary neighbor.

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The crew, made up of Diego Urbina (Italy/Colombia), Romain Charles (France), Alexey Sitev (Russia), Sukhrob Kamolov (Russia), Alexandr Smoleevskiy (Russia), and Wang Yue (China), “took off” on June 3, 2010. In reality, they were sealed an isolation facility measuring 550 cubic meters.

The Mars500 Mission, which is a joint effort between the European Space Agency and the Russian Academy of Sciences, is testing how humans fare both psychologically and physiologically under the extreme pressure of a year-and-a-half long space flight.

Patrick Sundblad who heads ESA’s life sciences division, said that after over eight months in isolation, the crew are doing well. “Of course we knew that it would be challenging mentally to go through this, but I must say that the selection has been good in the sense that these guys are really stable. They have been able to handle periods of monotony where you typically see a little more conflict within the group, but also conflict with ground control.”

The crew breaks the monotony with a steady regime of wake-sleep cycles, exercise, virtual reality training, and experimentation on themselves and their environment.

Sundblad said that currently spirits are high, as the crew have been anticipating the “Mars” landing and will be quite busy until they begin the return to “Earth” later in the week. “We expect that once this is over and they are on their way back toward Earth, they will have long periods of relative monotony.” He explained that “it will be then again rather boring, and again, a bit challenging psychologically, then we expect that this will again go away when they come towards the end of the mission and the anticipation of coming back.”

Still, the crew members have found other ways to break up the monotony. They celebrated Halloween, Christmas and the Chinese New Year. Wang Yue has been teaching Romain Charles to write in Chinese. And Diego Urbino has been tweeting (@diegou).

Ground control has tested the crew’s ability to react to an emergency. They simulated a fire and two-day long power outage. In addition to being in total darkness for nearly 48 hours, the ventilation system, which cycles CO2 and oxygen throughout the isolation chamber, failed to function.

The simulation was so realistic, sais Sundbald, that “it took us some time after the simulated emergency was over to convince them that it actually was simulated. They thought it was for real.”

When the crew “lands” in October of this year, and emerges from isolation, this will have been the most in-depth and extensive isolation experiment yet, and a significant step toward an actual manned spaceflight to the Red Planet.

The crew perform a variety of tests throughout the day:


The crew react to a power outage:


* Watch an audio slide show narrated by Patrick Sundblad before the mission launched.*