French scientists using coronavirus lockdown to study space travel

BRUCE WEAVER/AFP via Getty Images
BRUCE WEAVER/AFP via Getty Images

French space scientists are using the Covid-19 lockdown as a dry run for what it will be like to be cooped up inside a spacecraft on a mission to Mars.

Researchers are studying 60 student volunteers who are confined to their dorm rooms in the southern city of Toulouse following the French government’s decision on 14 March to lock down the country.

Space researcher Stephanie Lizy-Destrez, Associate Professor of Space Systems Engineering at ISAE-SUPAERO, an aeronautics and space institute, decided to make the most of a bad situation, and signed up the students.

The idea is to see how they react over time to the kind of conditions they might experience on a long space mission.

It is not an exact simulation — for a start students are allowed a break for a daily trip outside — but rather than driving a rover across the red planet, the volunteers conduct computer-based tasks such as memory tests and mental agility tests.

They also keep a daily journal, and every five days have to complete a questionnaire.

There are a different set of motivations at play as well compared to real astronauts, says Ms Lizy-Destrex. “In the case of the participants in the experiment on campus, it's a confinement which was imposed on them,” she said.

But the similarities in the set are valid. Student rooms measure 12 square metres (130 square feet), limiting activities in a way that relatively cramped conditions on a long space flight might.

So too are the adverse psychological effects this can have on people, which scientists are keen to better understand before sending astronauts on a mission to Mars that could last several months.

Tom Lawson, a masters student in aerospace engineering who is participating in the programme, described the experience so far: “A lot of the students are finding it extremely difficult to keep up with their work and keep up with what they have to do.”

This is not the first study like this. In 2017, six volunteers spent two weeks in Poland in a simulated version of a Mars base. In the US, the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah also stages simulated missions. However, these were limited to between four and six people. The advantage of the lockdown project is that researchers had access to a larger sample size.

France will begin relaxing restrictions on movement from 11 May.

As with people returning home after a long space mission, the students will need to gradually readjust, said Ms Lizy-Destrez.

“We'll have to be vigilant because there could be unpredictable behaviour,” she said.

With reporting from Reuters

Read more

Astronauts aboard International Space Station brace for return

Astronauts shot into space after unusual coronavirus quarantine

Thousands of Americans apply to be Nasa astronauts

Astronaut gives advice on getting through isolation

International Space Station 'safest place to be amid Covid-19'