European Space Agency Starts 18-Month Mars500 Mission Simulation

Working in conjunction with the Moscow-based Institute of Biomedical Problems, the European Space Agency "launched" an 18-month simulated manned mission to Mars, designed to test the psychological and physical stresses humans might encounter on such an endeavor.

The European Space Agency, working in collaboration with Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, initiated Mars500, the first full-length simulated mission to Mars. The mission is to virtually fly to Mars in 250 days, divide in two groups, simulate a landing and exploration of the Martian surface for a month and then end with a simulated return to Earth in 230 days, in the team's special facility imitating an interplanetary spacecraft, lander and Martian terrain. The experiment will end in November 2011, the space agency said.

Diego Urbina and Romain Charles from Europe, Sukhrob Kamolov, Alexey Sitev, Alexandr Smoleevskiy and Mikhail Sinelnikov from Russia and Wang Yue from China face a mission that is "as close as possible to a real space voyage," the ESA said. They will live and work like astronauts, eat special food and exercise in the same way as crews aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Only electricity, water and some air will be fed into the compartments from outside.

The astronauts will normally have eight hours of work, eight hours of free time and eight hours of rest a day, with the "weekends" free. The ESA noted the physiological aspects of the experiments are of great interest to the experiment's observers. Their bodies are expected to start to adapt to new conditions -the ESA said a closed environment with restricted space could quickly lead to poor physical condition. While the crew needs to exercise up to two hours a day, they can shower only once a week.

The agency is calling the experiment "the ultimate test of human endurance" and said the physiological challenges faced by humans trapped for almost 18 months in a small container would be a key part of the test. "The facility is not a spacecraft, but it uses many systems that will be used in some form when developing a real craft for a Mars mission," a release from the ESA explained. "Testing these in realistic conditions is important. The crew has been trained to repair every single bolt of their -craft' and outside help will be given only in extreme situations."

Throughout their mission, Urbina and Charles, the ESA-selected crewmembers, will send diary updates and videos to ESA's Mars500 site. Their first post, "Goodbye Sun, goodbye Earth, we are leaving for Mars!" finds both astronauts upbeat and excited about the experiment and the benefits it might bring to humankind. "We are so pleased to be part of such a nice crew and such an important experiment, and hope that some of you, among our readers, will actually be the ones who will step on Mars in the future," wrote Urbina. "The internationalism of Mars500 does not only involve the crew, but also the researchers who come from so many countries that I could easily surpass the word limit in this blog post. This is for sure a strong point of Mars500, as no human flight to the Red Planet will be possible by one single Nation. Knowing how to collaborate at all levels is fundamental."