Scientists Isolate Themselves In A Dome For A Year To Simulate Mars Mission

The Red Planet. NASA/JPL-Caltech

On the rugged northern slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, six scientists have locked themselves inside a dome as part of a year-long research study. They will spend the next 365 days cut off from the rest of Earth as if they were on a mission to Mars.

The barren lava fields of Manua Loa are visually similar to the Martian landscape. “Looking out the single porthole window, all you can see are lava fields and Maunakea in the distance. Once the door is closed, and the faux airlock sealed, the silence and physical separation contribute to the ‘long way from home’ experience of our crew members," said principal investigator Kim Binstead in a statement about a previous mission.

The latest, the fourth Hawaii Space Exploration and Analogue Simulation (HI-SEAS), began on August 28 and will see a crew of three men and three women live together in an 11 meter (36 foot) wide, 6 meter (20 foot) tall solar-powered dome. The idea is to test the psychological effects that accompany the extended periods of isolation astronauts would encounter during a Mars mission.

The NASA-sponsored simulated space mission is the longest HI-SEAS to date, following two four-month long studies (2013 and 2014) and one eight-month long mission (October 2014). HI-SEAS IV will be the second-longest simulated Mars mission, after the ESA’s third Mars500 mission, which saw six men live in a similar sized habitation module (or hab) for 520 days. 

Binstead explains the behavioral aspect of the mission in a statement: "The longer each mission becomes, the better we can understand the risks of space travel. We hope that this upcoming mission will build on our current understanding of the social and psychological factors involved in longduration space exploration."

Four Americans – a pilot, an architect, a journalist, and a soil scientist – a German physicist, and a French astrobiologist make up the crew. They will each have their own research – both inside and outside the dome – to conduct over the course of the mission, and will participate in scheduled simulated spacewalks. Living in cramped quarters with little privacy, as well as no fresh air, communication delays, and a requirement to don spacesuits when leaving the hab means the crew will experience conditions similar to those on a Mars mission

Back in the mission support center, researchers will constantly monitor the crew throughout the mission via a combination of cameras in the hab, and body-movement trackers to study cognitive, social, and emotional reactions of the crew to better understand how isolation affects the crew’s ability to work together.  The purpose of the mission is to test both individual reactions as well as how those reactions affect the team as a whole. Lack of privacy, food choices, and time away from family and friends can all take a toll. Even with the very best crew, conflicts are bound to pop up over the course of a long-duration mission.

The dual-level hab features a common area, kitchen – fully stocked with a year’s supply of food and water – a lab for carrying out research projects, an exercise room, a dining room, and one bathroom downstairs, with the crew quarters and a second bathroom upstairs. The crew will have to regulate food consumption, water usage, and waste production.

Throughout the mission, the crew will have access to the internet. However, that access will come with a 20-minute delay, just as astronauts on Mars would experience. A few of the crew members will be blogging about their experience. You can follow along with Sheyna Gifford, Andrzej Stewart, and Cyprien Verseux

NASA has spent $1.6 million (£1 million) on the first four HI-SEAS experiments and the project was recently awarded an additional $1.4 million (£900,000) for three future missions.

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