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The Daily Need

Real astronauts on a virtual Mars

The Martian surface simulator during Orlan suit testing. Photo: ESA

After 250 or so days of interplanetary flight, six men — three Russians, a Frenchman, a Chinese and an Italian — are preparing to land on Mars. This week their lander was preparing to detach from the mothership, and three of the six will descend toward the red planet where they will touch down on Saturday.

But the “red planet” on which they will land is actually on Earth. In fact, the whole thing is meticulously simulated. The Martian landscape they hope to soon “explore” is contained within a sealed room — in Moscow, Russia.

The virtual journey is part of a European Space Agency study, the Mars500, that is designed to simulate an actual mission to our second-closest planetary neighbor. The crew is hermetically sealed within four interconnected habitat modules with a total area of only 550 cubic meters; soon, they will leave the modules where they have spent the majority of the last year and explore the external “Martian surface” — a larger module, also hermetically sealed.

In addition to simulating the technology involved in an interplanetary journey and Martian landing, the study is designed to test the psychological stresses of such an expedition. The Mars500 crew lives as if they were actually in space, performing maintenance and scientific experiments and exercising daily. As they travel, the crew’s “communications with Earth” are disrupted with “realistic delays” varying from 8 to 736 seconds. As they travel, their psychological, medical and physical conditions are closely monitored.

Now that the astronauts are in “orbit” around their destination and are preparing to land, the mission is at one of its most exciting points.

“Now, when we are ‘seeing’ this planet from so close, we have got a vast set of new tasks. This makes our days different; generally more loaded, and hence… better. The activity and growing expectation of what is coming, broke the monotony into little pieces and fed them to the god Ares,” Diego Urbina, the Italian, wrote last month.

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The first expedition onto the “alien planet” will take place on February 14: Alexandr Smoleevskiy, one of the Russians, and Diego Urbina will don their spacesuits and exit the lander’s airlock. Over the next week, the three astronauts in the lander (also including Wang Yue, the Chinese) will make two more expeditions onto the Martian surface.

Then, on February 23, the lander will virtually depart the planet’s surface and dock with the mothership on the February 24. On March 1, the six astronauts, now reunited, will start their journey home, beginning another long, dull interplanetary cruise that will last until they “reach Earth” next November.

If the six Mars500 astronauts succeed, more simulations and experiments will follow — eventually culminating, the European Space Agency has hinted fairly blatantly, in an actual mission to Mars.

“Europe is getting ready to make a step further in space exploration: our technology and our science grow stronger every day,” said Simonetta Di Pippo, European Space Agency Director for Human Spaceflight. “Mars 500 today is only an enriching simulation, but we are working to make it real.”

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