520-day mission to Mars gets ready to land next month

It sounds crazy, but 233 days ago a team of six scientists entered a sealed simulator in Russia. Their mission? Recreate the conditions of a 520-day round trip to and from Mars, realistically cutoff from the rest of the world. Come February they'll finally reach the Red Planet, but the hardest part of the journey will still be ahead.

The experiment, called Mars500, is going down in a windowless isolation chamber within the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, with a team composed of three Russians, a fellow from France, one from China, and an Italian-Colombian. Communication is delayed just as it would be if the team was traveling further and further away from Earth for real; email and video messaging are the prime ways to exchange words even though the simulator is surrounded by a team of researchers, unseen by those inside. The team eats the kind of meals you'd find on the International Space Station and typically only enjoys showers weekly.

Curious? Here's what meals on the way to and from Mars could look like:

Mars500-foodstuffs.jpg

As you've probably already guessed, the inside of the simulator isn't exactly roomy, either, nor does it afford a lot of privacy:

Mars500-sim-interior.jpg

There is one major difference between the simulation and a real trip to Mars, however. If any member of the six-man team ever wanted out, all he'd have to do is exit the simulator. "They are still motivated, but there is a certain fatigue, which is natural," cosmonaut Boris Morukov said Friday, speaking to a group of reporters. After spending two days on Mars, the toughest part of the entire trip could be the journey back, according to Morukov: "It will be very tough on the boys because of the monotony. The fatigue and the thought that the mission is over can be fraught with negative consequences."

While the Mars500 experiment won't enable the nations of the world to turn around and launch a manned mission to the Red Planet, it could certainly go down as a monumental step toward understanding the rigors of one.

Mars500, via PhysOrg

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