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Mars500 Project Will Test Prospects for Human Travel to the Red Planet

On Thursday morning, six astronauts will be locked in a 550 cubic-meter windowless complex in Moscow. The mission: to simulate the experience of a real trip to Mars and back. The “voyage” will take 520 days, roughly 12 months longer than the average six-month stay at the International Space Station.

Scientists will be monitoring the international crew and studying everything from social and psychological impacts of isolation to microbiology and clinical diagnostics. Dubbed Mars500, the mission is a joint venture between the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

On Wednesday, we spoke to Patrik Sundblad of the ESA for details:

Throughout the spaceflight simulation, the crew will mimic the routines of astronauts like those who work on the [International Space Station](http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html). They’ll divide their days equally between ship maintenance and experiments, leisure and exercise — all while being [tested by the pressures](http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127368225) of long-term isolation.

Although mission control won’t be far away, the crew will work as an independent unit. They are expected to operate as a team to overcome group disputes, sickness and medical problems, food shortage, and the engineering issues that might occur on a long-term space flight.

The management of a limited amount of food is a key challenge. The crew’s diet will consist largely of freeze-dried and pre-packaged cuisine, supplemented with vegetables from an experimental greenhouse. Still, rationing will prove essential for survival.

The Mars500 complex consists of four interconnected, sealed habitat modules — which house facilities like a gym, greenhouse, kitchen and medical station — and one external module, which will serve as the Martian surface.

And, like a flight to Mars, communication with home base will be limited. The crew will have vocal contact with the control center for the first and last month of the voyage (when they would be closest to Earth). For the other 16 months, they will only be able to communicate via e-mail and face up to a 20-minute delay each way, as it would be during a mission.

Chosen from a field of nearly 300 applicants, the crew represents China, Russia, France and Italy. The all-male team ranges in age from 26 to 38, although the absence of women on board has raised some criticism.

“It’s not a jail, it’s a program, an experiment,” French crewmember Romain Charles told the AP. “It will be hard I’m sure, but we have a target to stay here 520 days and we will achieve it.”

The crew will have one familiar high-tech distraction: video games. Their usage of a series of game based tools will be logged and observed to help develop personalized software devices for astronauts on space missions.

Voyage to Mars is on the space exploration agenda of several countries, including the U.S. In outlining his vision for the future of NASA in April, President Obama said: “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.”

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