ESA prepares for a human mission to Mars (Forwarded)

ESA News

2 April 2007

ESA prepares for a human mission to Mars

Starting in spring next year, a crew of six will be sent on a 500 day
simulated mission to Mars. In reality the crew will remain in a special
isolation facility in Russia. To investigate the psychological and medical
aspects of a long-duration mission, such as to Mars, ESA is looking for
experiment proposals for research to be carried out during their stay.

During the simulated Mars mission, known as Mars500, the crew will be put
through all kinds of scenarios as if they really were travelling to the Red
Planet -- including a launch, an outward journey of up to 250 days, arrival
at Mars and, after an excursion to the surface, they will face the long
journey home.

Locked in the facility in Moscow, the crew will have tasks similar to those
they would have on a real space mission. They will have to cope with
simulated emergencies; they may even have real emergencies or illnesses.
Communication delays of as much as 20 minutes each way will not make life
any easier.

Instead of having a spacecraft as their home, the crew will live in a series
of metal tanks. Using narrow connecting passages, they can move between a
medical area, a research area, a crew compartment and a kitchen -- an area
of only 200m2. There is even a special tank representing the Mars descent
vehicle for simulation of a stay on the Martian surface.

ESA will participate in the study organised by the Russian Institute for
Biomedical Problems (IBMP), and hopes to learn how to prepare for a real
mission to Mars in the future. Following an Announcement of Opportunity, ESA
is now looking for scientific experiments that can be integrated into the

In an interview ESA scientist Marc Heppener told us more about the Mars500

Why is ESA participating in this study?

Our main interest is to look at the psychology of such a mission, knowing
that you are enclosed for 500 days. As soon as there is a problem, the crew
knows that they are on their own, and they have to solve it themselves. The
only help available from the outside is through communications which may
take up to 40 minutes.

At the start of their mission the crew will be supplied with all the food
they will have to live off for the duration of the study. They have to keep
track of their consumables amongst themselves. This limited food supply
could lead to additional tensions amongst the crew.

We want to look at the psychological effects of the situation on your mental
well-being, and on your capabilities of performing certain tasks, even tasks
critical to the mission. In a real mission, for example, whether you are
able to land a vehicle on the surface of Mars, and are you able to do the
science once you are there? How will group relations evolve? What are the
potential dangers could we encounter? What kind of countermeasures can we
invent that can prevent this? For us we can also learn about what types of
personality we should select for a real mission.

Almost as important; we are keen to learn more about the medical procedures.
How do you define a good medical environment so that you can treat diseases?
What are the medicines that you want to take with you on the journey? There
will be one person amongst the crew with real medical training. But of
course that person can also fall ill. So you have to have all kinds of
back-up scenarios. To think all of that through is really difficult. We
think doing a full simulation will teach us a lot.

And what is ESA's involvement in carrying out this study?

We are still negotiating our contract with IBMP. The basic agreement is that
we are a full partner in the project, which is largely funded by Roscosmos
with an important involvement of the Russian Academy of Sciences. ESA will
be involved at all levels.

We will propose two volunteers out of the six people in the facility. We
will also be involved in the full mission definition -- all the steering
boards, medical boards, the operations team who are from the outside
communicating with the crew inside. That is also very important for us. We
have experience in having astronauts flying on the International Space
Station, but having astronauts travelling to Mars is a whole different ball
game. And we will also be able to propose a full set of science proposals
that we want to be executed.

So exactly what kind of experiments are you looking for?

We have a first draft list of the kind of science we are looking for. Such
as crew composition, the influence of confinement on sleep, mood and mental
health, and the effect of differences in personality, cultural background
and motivation. But also on the medical side -- physiological adaptation to
an isolated environment, stress effects on health and well-being, changes in
the immune system.

These are just a few examples of what we came up with as first ideas -- but
we are open to all good scientific proposals. Following a peer review we
will make our selection of the best science. The Russians will also make
their selection, and then a steering committee integrates all the science
projects into one final project.

I should add that in parallel to this Announcement of Opportunity we also
send one out for research on the Concordia Station. There we cooperate with
the French and Italian owners of this Antarctic research station. Concordia
has a similar objective to the Mars study, although it is a very different
environment. We hope actually that a lot of scientists will propose things
in parallel to both studies because that would be interesting to compare.

The concept sounds a bit like a reality TV show -- is that a fair

Well, yes and no! Honestly, I believe it is fair to look at it that way --
you could even push the comparison pretty far. Both look at interaction
between people in all kinds of different situations. If you want there is
even a prize at the end -- not in the simulation -- but if it is a real
mission you will be the first person to walk on the surface of Mars, which
is huge prize!

The comparison comes to a very sharp dead-end though -- we will do a serious
science experiment, and this is actually the only way we can prepare
ourselves properly for a really long-duration spaceflight mission.

In the final set-up we will make sure that this is a good environment that
it is safe and people are doing serious work also inside the facility. It is
not entertainment -- not at all. Having said that, part of a mission to Mars
would also be the press interest it generates. We are still considering
whether we should simulate that aspect.

What kind of people will you be looking for?

People who go through this selection will find they are looked at pretty
much the same way an astronaut is selected. With our knowledge of astronaut
selection and our involvement in the selection of subjects for bed rest
studies -- we have some basic knowledge about the type of people who would
fit in this type of study. We will apply those criteria.

Of course we do want to have a reasonable reflection of a real crew -- there
should be people with medical qualifications, there should be some
engineering qualifications, some science -- it should really reflect that
type of crew you would put on a real mission to Mars. We might be a little
bit less strict about physical capabilities.

The volunteers will need to be away from work and family for an extended
period of time. You might be away from home for one and a half years, maybe
even longer for the full duration of the study itself, but also for training
before and for tests after the study: we will follow those people after they
have returned. It might be that effects are still visible after a year or
longer and we will want to include that in our data.

Will they be paid for taking part?

Yes, there will be some compensation although it will not be a big salary.
Legally there are some rules about the amount you have to pay volunteers
each day. We are still discussing this with our Russian colleagues.

When will you start the process of finding volunteers?

In mid-June we will call for volunteers -- probably through an announcement
on the web. Our own pre-selection will then be followed with a selection by
the integrated IBMP/ESA team. We believe we are going to have the selection
concluded by November this year.

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