Four Chinese student volunteers have emerged after spending the last 200 days in a sealed cabin in Beijing, completing the second round of testing for a prototype lunar laboratory and living space called the Yuegong-1.
The 160-square-meter (1,720-square-foot) module is an integrated environment called a Bioregenerative Life Support System (BLSS), designed to recycle all water and organic resources among its human, plant, animal, and microbiological residents. Intended to mimic the stresses of space missions, the volunteers reportedly had no contact with the outside world while they cooperatively raised crops and conducted experiments within the close quarters. Of course, the lunar condition of decreased gravity could not be replicated. See photos of the interior here.
"The longer-than-ever stage, during which time three unexpected blackouts happened, has challenged the system as well as the psychological status of the volunteers, but they withstood the test," Liu Hong, chief designer of the Yuegong-1, said to Chinese news agency Xinhua Net.
What happened during said blackouts, and whether the group was truly “alone on the moon” during troubleshooting, remains unclear.
Upon the exit of the current two man, two woman team, a group that had previously completed a 60-day stay re-entered, beginning an additional 105-day stay in the BLSS. When this third phase is completed, the target of a full 365 days will have been met, taking into account a successful 105-day trial conducted in 2014.
All the brave astronaut hopefuls are biomedicine students from Beihang University.
The trial is one of many ongoing projects within China’s ambitious space program. In 2017, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) planned to conduct 30 launches, including the deployment of the unmanned Chang’e 5 lunar exploration spacecraft – China’s first attempt to collect and return samples from the moon’s surface. But in July, the Long March 5 rocket that would have carried Chang’e 5 into space failed during launch, delaying the mission and many others.
Long March 5 is CASC’s heavy-lift booster rocket designed to carry large satellites and components of the future Chinese space station into orbit. Though its maiden flight in November 2016 was successful, the rocket failed approximately 45 minutes after take-off in July due to “anomalies” during launch.
Due to these complications, the much-anticipated launch of Chang’e 4 was also postponed. This multiphase mission will culminate in the first-ever landing of a probe on the dark side of the moon. First, however, a satellite must be placed in orbit to enable communications between Earth-based controls and any vehicles delivered to the surface – which is locked facing away from us.
According to announcements earlier this year, the CASC has put Chang’e 5 on hold and redirected their efforts to Chang’e 4. The satellite may launch in June 2018, followed by a lander and a rover at year’s end. If everything goes to plan, the surface equipment will analyze the landing zone geography using technology from research groups around the world. The rover will also carry seeds and insect eggs to determine the effect of low gravity on plant germination and animal development.