Thu 27 Feb 20 in Science

Preparing for human exploration missions on Mars


Ever since humans learned to walk on two feet and looked at the sky for the first time, a fascination with what lay above their heads was born. Be it gods or spirits watching over them, the curious nature of humans longed to know more.


The dream of Mars

That curiosity manifested itself through the exploration of the world, new continents, new resources and eventually the little companion orbiting above, the Moon. Interest in the Moon has dwindled ever since the ’60s, more pressing matters closer to home captured people’s attention. But now a renewed interest in space exploration has emerged, and along with it, the dream of Mars.


Human psyche in space

Going there, however, will prove a far more difficult endeavor than expected, a million things could go wrong. Studying and developing the necessary tools for such a journey is one thing to check off the list of necessities, human behavior and the effects of exposure to space radiation and weightlessness is another. For the latter, the Mars 500 project was designed, its aim to study the psychological, physiological and technical challenges astronauts might face on a long-duration space flight. The experiment took place at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, Russia in a complex facility designed to simulate the spacecraft, a martian lander, and the martian surface, all in all, there were 5 different modules with a total surface area of 550 square meters or 19 000 cubic feet.


Three stages

The Mars 500 experiment enfolded in three stages. The first one lasted 15 days and included the only woman in an all-male crew. She wasn't included in the next longer missions, sources say to prevent sexual tension. The second stage lasted 105 days and marked the first longer mission. The third and last one lasted 520 days, hence the name Mars 500.  All crew members comprised of 6 people, volunteered and dedicated their time to this project. They subjected themselves to this research in order to better understand how factors like isolation and confinement might affect their mood and influence the voyage.


Tests and experiments

The experiments themselves varied and included more than simply staying in the company of the same 6 people for 17 months. In fact, the crew has been subjected to over 600 experiments and tests throughout the 520 days. A number of cardiac tests were undertaken, these included electrocardiogram recordings, respiratory and blood pressure samples, plus filling out a  questionnaire about life, complaints, and stress.

In order to get immersed in the living situation of space, subjects had to simulate the entire space trip to Mars, landing and walking on the surface. Communication systems were also designed with a 13-minute delay as if on an actual Mars boun ship. This delay increased during the experimentation phase to 25 minutes.

As a space traveler through the vastness of space, there is a risk of fire, especially so far away from home or any emergency services. For this situation preparing for the worst is key, so argon is planned as an inhibitor in the ship's atmosphere. Thus the effects of argon infused air on the human body can be studied.

As for radiological tests, the crew has not been subjected to high doses of radiation for the project but instead, tests on monkeys have been conducted. Scott Kelly’s year on the International Space Station will also provide future material for radiological study.


The results

The psychological part of the project concluded what can be perceived as a success. There were no interpersonal conflicts between the crew members. They worked together as a team and overcame difficult challenges. Language and cultural boundaries did not significantly influence social interactions.

That being said, some aspects of their behavior did change as time went on. Some of the subjects began spending more time in bed or engaged in personal activities. Others had sleep and psychological issues, their circadian rhythm had been disrupted or stopped exercising and hid away.  Seeking isolation in an already isolated place is understandable in a situation where one cannot simply walk outside or converse with some other people. This kind of behavior was associated with animal hibernation. Even on the simulated journey back to Earth, 700 more hours were spent in bed than the outward journey to Mars.

The overall result of the entire project though was a positive one. They set out to better understand human behavior as it relates to an extraneous journey into space and see if it could be done. The answer to that question was a resounding “Yes”. Even with the mood changes of some of the crew members, the fact that they managed to stick together and pull each other through, concluded the project on a positive note.


The real thing

On a real journey out to the red planet, the crew for that particular mission will have the added stress of weightlessness and radiation to deal with. Such a vast distance from Earth could also create a sense of detachment, and research like this is designed to improve and plan for such an eventuality.

The final goal of a future venture out to Mars will be colonization, tapping into resources outside of Earth and maybe even finding life. Preparation is essential for such a dream to be accomplished and projects like Mars 500, aim to achieve that dream.