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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Scientists begin 520-day Mars mission simulation

MOSCOW (AP) - An international team of researchers in Russia on Thursday began a grueling simulation of a flight to Mars that will keep them locked in a cascade of windowless modules for 520 days _ the amount of time required for a journey to the Red Planet and back to Earth.

While the experiment, conducted jointly by Russia, China and the European Space Agency, will not involve weightlessness, it will try to tackle some of the psychological challenges of a real flight to Mars _ particularly the stress, claustrophobia and fatigue that a real space crew would face during interplanetary travel.

The six-member, all-male crew _ consisting of three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian and a Chinese _ expressed confidence that the mission would be a success.

Diego Urbina, the Italian-Colombian member, said the mission would mean "accomplishing dreams about the future, doing something that no human has done before."

Psychologists said the simulation can be even more demanding that a real flight because the crew won't experience any of the euphoria or dangers of actual space travel. They have also warned that months of space travel would push the team to the limits of endurance as they grow increasingly tired of each other.

Well aware of this hazard, crew members equipped themselves accordingly. For instance, French participant Romain Charles said he was bringing along a guitar so he could entertain the other team members.

The main task of the Mars-500 experiment, conducted by the Moscow-based Institute for Medical and Biological Problems, will study the effects of long isolation to better understand how a real space crew should cope with stress and fatigue.

The facility for the experiment is located in Russia's premier space medicine center. It is comprised of several interconnected modules with a total volume of 550 cubic meters (about 20,000 cubic feet) and a separate built-in imitator of the Red Planet's surface for a mock landing.

The researchers will communicate with the outside world via Internet _ delayed and occasionally disrupted to imitate the effects of space travel. They will eat canned food similar to that currently offered on the International Space Station and take a shower once every 10 days _ mimicking space conditions. The crew will have two days off in a week, except when emergencies are simulated.

The ESA said the crew will also regularly play video games as part of the agency's project to develop personalized software to interact with crews on future space missions.

Other crew members include Sukhrob Kamolov, 32, Alexander Smoleyevsky, 33 and Alexey Sitev, 38 _ all Russians _ and Wang Yue, 26, from China.

For mission captain Sitev, the experiment means separation from his wife just a few weeks after the two wed. When asked about marital repercussions, he tried to put on a brave face.

"I'll tell you that it's difficult for me to part with my family, just as it is for any other person," he told journalists just before the experiment began.
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