The hatch opened and six men emerged -- three Russians, one Chinese, one French and one Italian. The astronauts were pale, but smiling as they stepped out of the module that had been their home for 520 days. They were returning from a mission to Mars.. not a real one, but a mock space mission in Russia's premier Space Medicine Center!
The men were part of an experiment to simulate the effects of confinement, stress and fatigue of interplanetary travel on a mock round trip mission to Mars. The men were living in school bus sized accommodations, and had duties to perform just as they would on a space mission. The experiment however did not simulate the effects of weightlessness -- the goal was to test the physical and psychological effects on humans.
The Mars-500 Project
The journey was staged inside a series of interconnected metal tubes, set in a parking lot at the research facility. The men were carefully chosen after undergoing qualifying tests and entered the mock-capsule in June of 2010. The crew communicated with the organizers and their families via the Internet, which was delayed and occasionally disrupted to imitate the effects of space travel. Three of the men even carried out a mock landing on Mars, donning real space suits and walking across a dark, sand-filled room!
Overall, the experiment -- the longest of its kind, appears to have been successful. There were some minor issues (jealousy) that the crew had to contend which is normal when people are confined for extended periods. The men will be quarantined (kept in isolation) for three days before they can go back to their families.
How will a real mission differ?
A real mission to Mars is decades away due to technological and financial challenges. It will also be significantly different from the mock-mission, with regard to conditions encountered by the astronauts.
Weightlessness : Living in zero gravity plays havoc on all parts of human body! Since muscles don't have to do much, the body will not be in the same physical shape as on Earth in spite of regular exercise. It also takes a few days for astronauts to get used to floating in weightlessness, and many experience nausea or "space sickness".
Radiation : This is the biggest unknown in long space flight trips. We, on Earth, are shielded from sun's radiation, as the stream of charged particles are deflected by our Earth's magnetic field. Astronauts on a trip to Mars will be exposed to radiation, which may increase with solar flares. Radiation can cause cancer, as well as nerve damage and digestive problems.
Surface : While the astronauts stomped on a sandy patch that simulated Martian surface, the real thing is vastly different in texture, coupled with low gravity and lack of oxygen.
Time : A trip to Mars would take al least three years -- twice as long as what was simulated.
Finally, it would be more stressful than a mock-trip where the astronauts know that they can step out of the hatch should something go wrong. On a real mission, there is no turning back!
Would you like to be part of a space mission to Mars when it happens in the future? Why or why not? We would love to hear your thoughts!
Courtesy : Reuters, BBC