A crew of scientists has embarked on a yearlong experiment to simulate the future living conditions of the first astronauts on Mars.
Imagine living 140 million miles away from everyone and everything you are familiar with. Imagine only having five other people for company in a dome just 36 feet in diameter. Imagine spending 356 days in that level of isolation—with no Internet.
It sounds like the premise for a reality TV show, and not a particularly enjoyable one at that. Indeed, these unfortunate individuals will even be monitored using cameras, body movement trackers, and surveys. But for the crew members of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission, the year-long study will be worth the chance to live like an astronaut, and bring us one step closer to sending a manned mission to Mars.
In partnership with NASA, the University of Hawaii at Manoa established the mission to simulate long-term space travel and learn how to optimize crew member performance and health. Previous missions only lasted a few months, but this fourth iteration of the project will isolate the participants for a full year. The mission officially began when the six crew members entered the dome on Friday, August 28.
The 13,570-cubic-foot dome is located on the slope of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, but the crew members won’t get to enjoy the scenery as the habitat is completely closed off from its surroundings. The structure has two stories, with kitchen, dining, lab, exercise, bathroom, and common areas on the ground floor and six bedrooms on the second floor.
The crew won’t be completely cut off from Earth, but all news headlines, TV shows, and social media will only come at a delay, in order to reproduce the 20 minute communications lag between Earth and Mars. So how will they spend their days? Of course, there will be routine tasks, like cleaning and maintenance, renewing energy and water supplies, cooking, and laundry. But the crew members will also conduct scientific, physical, and psychological experiments. Although the study can’t truly replicate the experience of venturing out onto the Martian terrain, the crew members will periodically leave the habitat in space suits to collect geological data.
The team consists of an assembly of scientists with diverse backgrounds and specialties, including a soil scientist, physicist, neurologist, flight engineer, astrobiologist, and architect. NASA selected the individuals based on their previous experiences with long deployments and remote research, but the intense conditions of the HI-SEAS study may present the most challenging mission yet for its participants.
A similar experiment organized by Russia, the European Space Agency, and China yielded some ominous results. The MARS 500 experiment, conducted between 2010 and 2011, subjected an international crew of six men to a simulated 520-day mission. During the journey, many of them suffered from poor sleep, lethargy, and depression. However, at the conclusion of the experiment all six men were reported to be in good physical and psychological health.
It’s therefore vital to continue running these experiments and figure out how best to support an eventual manned mission to Mars. With any luck, the HI-SEAS crew won’t dissolve into a bickering episode of Real Housewives of Mars—although that would make for some quality television.