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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Five hundred days of solitude: Russia ends Mars experiment

Russia is about to wrap up the longest isolation experiment in space travel history, with six men ending their virtual trip to Mars after 520 days on Friday.

“They are looking forward to their exit just like children on Christmas Eve,” says Martin Zell from the European Space Agency (ESA).

Six participants from Russia, China, Italy and France have been confined inside a 180-square-metre container in Moscow since June 3, 2010 as part of the Mars500 space experiment, which simulates an interplanetary flight to Mars and back.

On Friday, their spaceship is scheduled to “land” again on Earth after nearly 18 months away -- even though they were never gone.

“Simulation is much more difficult than a real flight,” said Italian electrical engineer Diego Urbina, one of the participants.

Mars500 has not included weightlessness or cosmic rays, which would feature on a real 50-million-kilometre flight to the Red Planet.

“Instead, you often feel isolation and heavy monotony,” Urbina told DPA in an interview from the module.

More than 30 cameras are observing the occurrences within the tubular container -- save for one private chamber measuring 3 square metres -- from a control room at the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow.

The controllers watch scenes such as Urbina, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, sitting comfortably in front of wood panelling.

“Having a woman on board would have certainly been good. You miss that, to be honest,” the 28-year-old says.

Despite the boredom, Urbina is among the lucky ones. He, along with Russian Alexandr Smoleevskiy and Chinese Wang Yue, got to briefly leave the container in February for a virtual landing and the first steps on Mars.

Researchers had recreated at the IBMP a portion of the Red Planet, which gets its nickname from its iron-oxide dust.

Russians Alexey Sitev and Sukhrob Kamolov as well as Frenchman Romain Charles, meanwhile, had to wait for their colleagues on the “mother ship.” “But hand on heart, we knew every second that we were not on our way to Mars,” Urbina says with a wink.

To keep the crew on their toes, “ground control” came up with dozens of experiments and staged breakdowns.

The crew will have spent nearly 12,500 hours in a windowless container which looks like “a mix between a Finnish sauna and an enlarged roof truss from the 1970s,” according to the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), which is participating in the project.

In the first long-term experiment by the Mars researchers two years ago, Cyrille Fournier of France and German Oliver Knickel spent 105 days “in space” in Moscow.

Mars500 has brought new insights that could be life-saving. “To see Mars and not die is what a real flight to the Red Planet will be all about,” Mars500 project executive officer Alexander Suvorov says.

“This closed society was a paradise for researchers,” said Alexander Chouker, an anaesthesiologist from Munich’s Ludwig Maximilians University, who looked at urine and saliva samples to see how stress affects the immune system.

“I am certain that this was a small but important step on the way to Mars,” said Peter Graef from the DLR.

Since experts cannot rule out life forms on Mars, the most Earth-like planet in the solar system is also the most exciting for them.

Urbina reported that there were no scuffles as in previous experiments. “It was like a normal life on board. Not everybody had to be everybody’s friend,” the Italian said.

His colleague Wang Yue cannot wait to leave the spaceship. “I really miss my mother’s cooking,” the Chinese said, in a reference to the strict nutrition rules on board.

The spaceship did have four tons of food on board -- but there was no Asian food to be had.

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