Scientists live in isolation in Antarctica to simulate life in space, and a study found interesting results about their learning styles.
If astronauts ever leave the relative safety of Earth and venture outwards towards Mars, they will be away from our planet for at least two years. During that time, their lives will change drastically. They won’t be training anymore — it will be the real deal. The question is, once you stop training, will you remember what you learned when you need it?
That is one of the topics that scientists like Nathalie Pattyn are studying at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS)’s Halley research station on the Brunt ice shelf in Antarctica in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA). Pattyn, who has been there for over two years, is Halley’s medical doctor, but she is also living there to study the effects of isolation under harsh conditions.
“I can look out of my window now and see the vastness of a flat, white infinity,” said Pattyn to BBC. “You have no variation in the outer landscape but also in your social landscape — in winter there are only 12 of us and no-one else.” That sounds a lot like the life of an astronaut.
While doing her research, Pattyn gets to use a fully-fitted Soyuz spacecraft — the rocket that Russian cosmonauts currently use to fly to and from the International Space Station (ISS) — in order to study how an astronaut’s skills might degrade over a long period of time, like a mission to Mars.
Since she is a doctor but doesn’t spend her days working as one, she is well aware of the reality of skill degradation: “We send a trained professional to Mars but how much of that training, experience and proficiency can you expect when they haven’t been using those skills?”
Multiple scientists train on the simulators to achieve a certain level of proficiency before they are split into two groups. One group continues to train frequently whereas the other does not. After a certain period of time, it is possible to study how their skills differ.
They have been obtaining interesting results. We tend to think of people learning quickly to be a good thing, but perhaps it is better to take your time: “We know people have different learning rates – some people grasp things very quickly and others need more time,” she says. “The funny thing is, these are not correlated so you can be a really fast learner but also a really fast forgetter.”
Pattyn and her fellow scientists’ living situation is oddly similar to what astronauts experience in other ways as well. “If I have an emergency here now,” says Pattyn, “it will be a true emergency and I will be truly alone to deal with it – much closer to the reality of a real spaceflight than a simulated isolation experiment.” There won’t be an emergency exit on a flight to Mars.
They also have to cope with atypical lighting. Our sleep patterns are typically regulated by the amount of light around us. However, with 24-hour days and nights at different times of the year in the Antarctic, the scientists have to adapt — much like the astronauts with 90-minute days on the ISS.
There are also psychological aspects to living in isolation. “I have exactly 23 steps between my bedroom and my working space,” Pattyn says. “One of [the] things that really helps is to talk to people at home because that helps you retain perspective – it’s completely like a dystopian society you’d read about in a sci-fi novel.”
According to BAS, the scientists are recording themselves in video diaries that will be analyzed through computer algorithms looking for variances in pitch and word choice that could help monitor astronauts’ psychological status while in space.
In a BAS press release, Jennifer Ngo-Anh from ESA said, “Offering Halley Research Station as an additional platform for European researchers will provide us with important data, experience and knowledge to prepare for future long-duration human missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.”
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