In Moscow on Friday, six volunteers exited a virtual spacecraft they were sequestered in for 520 days, marking the conclusion of a joint experiment by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems. Named the Mars 500 project, its aim was to simulate living and working conditions during a journey to and from the Red Planet, and to study the resulting physiological and psychological effects on the participants.
The all-male crew was an ethnically diverse and skilled one, consisting of Italian and French engineers, a Russian physiologist and surgeon, and a Chinese astronaut-in- training. During their extended stay, they conducted various experiments, collected medical data, and even outfitted themselves in spacesuits to traverse a small area constructed to resemble Mars once they had "landed".
Upon exiting the sealed living quarters on Friday, Alexey Sitev, a Russian engineer and commander of the mission, declared to project directors that the entire crew was in good health and that the study a success.
The pretend journey to Mars began in June of 2010, with a virtual landing occurring in February of this year. With a price tag of over $15 million, it was the longest and most ambitious simulated spaceflight ever undertaken. Christer Fuglesang, who leads the science and application division at the Directorate of Human Spaceflight and Operations at the ESA, says that besides understanding human behaviour and health during long space voyages, there are additional benefits.
"We are also getting training information for the ground crews. We're learning how to operate these missions."
Project officials further indicate that future research will involve extended stays in zero-gravity environments, and may include an 18-month visit to the International Space Station sometime after 2014.
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