Mars500 mock mission reveals dangers of long space flights

Flying all the way to Mars may not be as fun as it seems. Astronauts will get to travel at super-fast speeds, but they will probably suffer problems with fatigue and boredom as well as mental health issues that might jeopardize the mission.

These conclusions come from the Mars500 experiment, a joint effort between the Russian Academy of Sciences, the European Space Agency and the China National Space Administration that was conducted over 520 days in 2010 and 2011. The experiment put a six-man crew of astronauts in isolation to simulate a mission to Mars, recording their daily activity, as well as their physical and mental health.

"Our major finding was that there were really large individual differences with how the crew responded to the isolation," said Dr. Mathias Basner, according to Wired. Basner is a psychiatrist with the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who helped run the experiment. "Four of them showed at least one issue that could have exploded or led to a severe adverse effect during a Mars mission."

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How much sleep each participant got, and what their sleep schedule was, seemed to have the biggest effect on how they did during the experiment. One participant got into a 25-hour day schedule, deviating from the standard 24-hour schedule being used, and thus became disconnected from the rest of the crew. Another started getting less and less sleep over time, which affected his ability to perform tasks.

"If you have people awake when others are sleeping, that doesn't bode well for crew dynamics and cohesion," said Lauren B. Leveton, a behavioral health scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Also, with very little to do, and limited resources for entertainment or diversion, the amount of free time the participants had caused some problems with boredom and lethargy, and most of them spent more time than normal sleeping.

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Other problems that might be encountered on a real mission, which apparently weren't dealt with in the experiment, is that Mars has a slightly longer day than Earth does. Therefore, astronauts who lived on the surface for any length of time would need to adjust to that difference, which might cause issues. One possible way of regulating this might be by adjusting the amount of blue and red light the astronauts see. Since we are used to seeing the blue sky during the day here on Earth, seeing more blue light encourages us to be more active, whereas more red light encourages sleep. Adjusting the length of time we see this light, perhaps in a specially-timed cycle, might even allow astronauts to make a smooth transition between Earth days and Martian sols.

One positive effect seen from the extra sleep the participants were getting was an increase in their cognitive abilities. According to Basner, this is likely due to the fact that most people deal with a 'sleep deficit' in their normal lives, as their daily activities keep them busy. With so much time on their hands during the experiment, the participants who got the extra sleep were able to eliminate this deficit, and thus performed better, overall.

Basner said, “It underscores the fact that people living on Earth should get a chance to sleep more. It lets us improve cognitively.”

(Space.com photo of Mars500 volunteers during their mock mission)