Project HI-SEAS: A Future On Mars

KarthikGanapathy's picture

Can you imagine living on the Red Planet? NASA has been pursuing a long-term goal of establishing a permanent human settlement on the surface of Mars.

Now, NASA has embarked on a new experiment to simulate life as it would be on Mars. A group of six recruits has been selected to spend the next year in isolation on the slopes of a barren volcano in Hawaii.

The project is under Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). The experiment will help scientists determine if such a mission is feasible and the impact on human psychology.

The Experiment

To test the conditions of Mars, scientists may be required to spend two to three Earth years there - in addition to the two months of travel both ways!

The moon is 384,400 kilometers (238,855 miles) away from the Earth while Mars is a whopping 225.3 million kilometers (140 million miles). That is a very long way from home, and from family and friends for the astronauts on the mission. Their living quarters would be restricted with barely any privacy and they would have to survive on very limited supplies.

To analyze the effects of isolation on people, the six recruits chosen by NASA will spend an entire year in isolation in an environment similar to that of Mars. A dome measuring 36 feet (11m) in diameter and 20 feet (6m) tall will be the crew’s home. For any short trips outside, they will have to wear a spacesuit.

Imagine having to stock a year’s supply of food inside. What kind of food would an astronaut have in space? It would have to last for a very long time without spoiling and require minimum cooking because all those resources would be in limited supply on an actual space mission. They would have very restricted communication with the outside world. That includes minimal internet access to simulate weak satellite connection so far away from the Earth.

Other Isolations Tests, Mars 500

NASA had earlier conducted four and eight-month isolation tests but this is the longest US experiment conducted so far. 

Between 2007 and 2011, Russia, the European Space Agency and China together conducted a three-stage experiment called Mars 500 (see Side Notes). Three different groups of six people each were put through rigorous tests of increasing duration. The test required the crew members to stay in confined, cramped conditions. They lived in a mock-up spacecraft. The experiment was conducted with very little outside communication and limited supplies.

How do you think the experiment affected the crew members? The participants were reported to be in good physical and psychological conditions at the end of the experiment. However, there were psychological issues reported a few years later. Four of the six crew members had issues sleeping. Some of them avoided exercise and would hide from others. They even had problems adjusting to the regular 24-hour pattern of day and night response due to the extremely long period of isolation.

The results of this latest experiment would be crucial in understanding how it would be to start life on Mars with a very small settlement of people. NASA will use the data to find an optimal group of people capable of completing a three year manned mission to Mars.

What do you think would make up a perfect space exploration team? Do you think you could be an astronaut like that?