520 Days in a Tube: Moscow Team Begins Simulated Flight to Mars

By in Moscow

No daylight. No fresh air. No contact with the outside world for 18 months. On Thursday, six men in Moscow are cutting themselves off for 520 days in a simulated trip to Mars. The mission will reveal the effects of prolonged space flight on the human body -- and whether six people can live in a confined space for so long without coming to blows.

Photo Gallery: Isolated In A 'Barrel' Photos
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Just a few weeks after their wedding, Ekaterina Golubeva's husband is leaving her. Alexei Sitev, a cosmonaut trainer from St Petersburg, is swapping his marital bed for a berth in close quarters with five other men. For 520 days, he will be jammed into what looks like a huge pipe. He will be watched at all times by cameras and he will voluntarily be giving up daylight, fresh air and his honeymoon. "Giving up sex for such a long time will be very tough," Sitev told the Times of London.

But what will be the first test of the newlyweds' stamina, will also be a milestone in efforts to send a manned mission further into outer space. Sitev is taking part in the longest isolation experiment in the history of space exploration. Along with two further human guinea pigs from Russia and one each from Italy, China and France, Sitev will be locked inside an spacecraft simulator located at Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow on Thursday. The project is called "Mars500" and the crew will be experiencing in real time what it would be like to fly a mission to the planet Mars. Scientists estimate a mission to the Red Planet using today's technology would take around 520 days. That consists of 250 days for the journey there and 240 days for the return journey, as well as 30 days for the stay on the surface of Mars.

Locked in a Barrel

"Bochka," or barrel -- that is what the men are calling the cramped system of pipes and tunnels that they will share for the next 520 days. Inside are small living quarters similar to those found aboard the International Space Station(ISS), an internationally funded, manned research station that orbits the earth. The six personal cabins that the men will sleep in are around 3 square meters (32 square feet) in size and are furnished with a small bed, desk, chair and shelves for personal belongings. Posters featuring legends of Soviet space travel grace the walls. Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit the earth, smiles down from one picture.

Researchers have even constructed a model of the inhospitable surface of Mars in one container -- with sand, stones and inexpensive chains of decorative lights to imitate the stars in the sky.

Researchers are hoping that the results of the $15 million (around €12 million) project, which is funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, will eventually lead to a real Mars mission. They are already describing it as a "history-making experiment."

The men of the Mars500 project are submitting themselves to a strict regime: For 18 months, they will be giving up fresh air, daylight and any direct contact with the outside world. Any radio conversations they have will come with a 20-minute delay, just as if they were floating in outer space. The men will not even be able to choose their own food. Every meal has been planned by a medical team at the University of Erlangen with levels of vitamins and calories measured exactly. If the crew doesn't stick to the letter of the planned diets, they could exhaust the space ship's rations before the end of the mission.

'I Am Used to Tasteless Food'

Jens Titze, a specialist in molecular medicine at the University of Erlangen, is responsible for the crew's nutrition. He also promises some insights into a more Earth-bound phenomenon. During a three-month long preliminary trial, he came across something that he is keen to examine in more depth: a kind of natural male rhythm. The lunar cycle also appears to affect hormone levels in males. "A sort of masculine menstruation but obviously without any bleeding," he explains. And now the researchers want to find out whether the changes in hormone levels account for changes in mood or attitude. To help discern this, there will be two dozen psychologists observing the behavior of the Mars500 crew around the clock.

During the crew's stay inside the spaceship simulator, Titze will also be investigating the causes of high blood pressure. "For the first time we have full control over a test group's diet," he explains. The scientists will investigate the old belief that too much salt can cause high blood pressure. The strict low-salt diet doesn't scare the men of the Mars500. "I am a Russian soldier," one of the participants, Alexander Smoleyevsky, a military doctor for Russia's space forces, says. "I am used to tasteless food."

Participants of a previous study that ran for 105 days last year say that the monotony was the worst thing. "Afterwards I learned to appreciate the small things -- the blue sky or birds singing," says Oliver Knickel, a German engineer who participated in that initial study for ESA. Since the first study, the Mars500 "barrel" has been renovated a little: There is now a shower onboard. During the first study, Knickel and his fellow voyagers had to wash themselves with moist towels.

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