Mars Mission (On Earth) Survives Budget Squeeze, Faces Fake Flares

John is a Science contributing correspondent.

Starting this summer, a crew of six people will begin the journey to Mars—without leaving Earth. The Mars500 experiment will be a simulation of a 520-day round-trip visit to the red planet. Four Europeans are now competing for 2 remaining berths in the capsule, which is ready for "launch" at the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow. They will be the stars at a 22 March press conference hosted by the European Space Agency (ESA) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

The future looked bleak for this joint Russian-ESA project as recently as last year, says Gernot Grömer, a space biomedical researcher at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. "They were pretty much scrounging" for funding, he says. The total price tag of Mars500 has not been announced, but next week's press conference indicates that ESA and the Russians have dug into their pockets.

An intense training regimen—identical to the ESA's astronaut program—began 24 February for four Europeans, four Russians, and a single Chinese candidate. All of the candidates speak English and Russian, and they made the final cut due to their skills in medicine, electronics, and other relevant fields. After the final crew of six are chosen, they will enter a completely isolated capsule at the IBMP facility. The tiny capsule consists of four connected modules, each with a volume of 550 cubic meters. Their diet will be identical to the freeze-dried menu on the International Space Station.

The simulation is meant to test the psychological stresses and logistical challenges of a real mission to Mars. Claustrophobia and depression are serious risks. "But given good crew selection and good activities and onboard entertainment, I seriously doubt they will go nuts," says Alan Stern, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a former NASA astronaut candidate. "The crew will be motivated and selected for just this kind of confinement."

Besides testing the grit of the crew, a support crew will be working around the clock at IBMP for the duration of the mission. Communication between mission control and the crew will have an automatically enforced delay of as long as 20 minutes to account for the distance between Earth and the capsule during its 100 million-mile jaunt. One simulated emergency that they are certain to face is a solar flare. In the space outside of Earth's magnetic shielding, astronauts will be vulnerable to the Sun's periodic belches of plasma and high-energy radiation. Once the alarm sounds, the Mars500 crew will have to scramble to emergency shielding to wait out the flare.

The experiment is launching at a time when human space flight seems more remote than ever. President Barack Obama canceled NASA's moon mission last month. And yet ESA struck an optimistic note in its Mars500 press release: "This mission might lack some of the glory and feeling of the real flight, but it is just as tough and will yield a lot of experience for the future. The first humans to walk on Mars will surely remember these pioneers."

Posted in Europe, Space