spaceSpace and Physics

Mars Scientists Emerge From Eight-Month Isolation Experiment

538 Mars Scientists Emerge From Eight-Month Isolation Experiment
Neil Scheibelhut/University of Hawaii at Manoa via AP

Emerging from a white dome on a barren mountain side, six scientists step outside and feel the wind on their skin for the first time in eight months. They’ve spent the time taking part in a NASA-funded human performance study to test how well people can work together and live as part of a team for long periods of time—all in an attempt to mimic what it might be like on Mars.

“When we first walked out the door, it was scary not to have a suit on,” said Jocelyn Dunn, a doctoral candidate at Purdue University, who was one of the six team members. “We've been pretending for so long.”


The inside of the dome. Credit: Zak Wilson/University of Hawaii at Manoa via AP

The domed structure, built on a lava field on the side of an extinct volcano in Hawaii, is designed to replicate some of the stresses that would affect potential colonizers on Mars: isolated location, silent environment, air lock, and requirement for inhabitants to always don a space suit whenever going outside.

All the scientists were monitored with cameras, body trackers and surveys in order to try to understand the emotional stresses that might affect current and future astronauts. Researchers hope this data will help future ground crew identify when someone in space is having issues.    

The dome on the side of the volcano in Hawaii. Credit: Neil Scheibelhut/University of Hawaii at Manoa via AP


“Astronauts are very stoic people, very level-headed, and there's a certain hesitancy to report problems,” explained Professor Kim Binsted, from the University of Hawaii, who led the study. “So this is a way for people on the ground to detect cohesion-related problems before they become a real issue.”

The crew were able to relieve some stress through team yoga and using a solar-powered treadmill. Even so, the separation from friends and family was still the hardest part of the experiment. Well, that and having showers limited to a mere six minutes a week. “To be able to just submerge myself in water for as long as I want, to feel the sun, will be amazing,” Dunn said. “I feel like a ghost.”

Plenty of people and organizations are forming grand plans to leave the blue planet and head for the red one. But at the moment, whether or not six people can manage to live in a confined space with each other for eight months is really the least of our worries. The main one should probably be if we can even get there. Whilst the technological side of things is essentially an engineering problem, the question of the impact that solar radiation will have on the astronauts is still yet to be fully answered. 

The team emerging from their isolation. Credit: Ryan Ogliore/University of Hawaii at Manoa via AP


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