A team of weary researchers are returning to the humdrum everyday world this week after spending four months on the craggy, upper slopes of a Hawaiian volcano simulating a manned mission to Mars.
Run by the University of Hawaii and funded by NASA, the second Hawaii Space Exploration Analog & Simulation mission (Hi-SEAS2), wraps up Friday after having 6 volunteer scientists complete a gruelling extended stay in the isolated and barren landscape of Mauna Loa volcano.
Living inside a cramped 11 meter-wide, solar-powered habitat and venturing outside only in spacesuits, the goal of the analog study was to test how future Mars colonists would live and work in the extreme environment of our neighbouring world.
While the first 118-day mission last summer focused on how to best manage food supplies on an extended stay on the Red Planet, this year’s expedition explored the necessary skills needed to to efficiently and safely carry out spacewalks on the dusty and rocky Martian surface.
Turns out any exploratory excursions Martian astronauts will conduct during their stay on the planet’s surface will require extensive planning if they want to survive Mars’ unforgiving environment.
Mars is definitely not friendly to Earthly life. Atmospheric pressures are only a tiny fraction of that of Earth – so little that liquid water could only exist for only a few seconds on the planet’s surface before evaporating. Meanwhile, daily temperatures average a bone-chilling -50 C, and its thin, carbon dioxide-rich air remains unbreathable.
Analog missions lasting months on end have shown that long-term confinement in small quarters with little or no gravity and exposure to space radiation can all seriously impact human health. There is no doubt that calling space your home is not without its own hazards. Without special precautions, muscles and bones can waste away, while cancer risks can increase measurably in just months.
But beyond the physical challenges, there are psychological challenges that future Mars explorers will have to face. This year’s Hi-SEAS2 mock mission examined the emotional toll these long-term space missions can exert on their crew.
Hi-SEAS2 participants have been reporting that they miss a varied diet and quickly got tired of eating the prepared ‘mush-like’ food. As the weeks and months passed, crew members also lamented the lack of sensory exposure to the natural world – like feeling a breeze and sounds and smells of the outdoors.
While spending four months cooped up in a tin can doesn’t sound appealing, can you imagine a year and a half? In Nov. 2011 the MarsOne project, run by the Russian and European space agencies, finished a record-setting 520-day virtual mission which was the longest and most expensive in history. Main challenges reported by the crew were waning motivation and fatigue.
But even this extended trip will pale in comparison to the years needed for a round-trip to Mars.
Using current technology, a human round-trip to Mars is estimated to take anywhere around 2 years – with just the one-way voyage itself lasting anywhere from 6 to 9 months. The vast chasm of space that separates our two planets measures anywhere from 70 to 400 million kilometres, which means the crew of such an ambitious mission will have to be independent and self-sufficient as much as possible. Unlike on these simulated Earth-bound missions, there is no possibility of a housecall by a physician in case someone gets sick or suffers an accident while on a distant planet.
The data gathered from analog missions like Hi-SEAS and many others conducted in remote deserts, under oceans and deep caves, promise to provide invaluable information that will help design the first human expedition to Mars.
Current NASA plans call for the first astronaut bootprints on Martian soil by the mid 2030s.
(Images courtesy Space.com)
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