Scientists complete eight-month Mars mission… on earth

Six scientists have successfully completed a space mission without ever setting foot in a rocket.

The crew spent eight-months cooped up in a Mars-like habitat on a barren plateau just beneath a remote Hawaiian volcano.

The data they produced should help NASA to identify the psychological profile of the people best suited to long and isolating missions, which will come in useful by 2030, when it hopes to send humans to Mars.

The future of the species

Samuel Paylor, Science Officer on HI-SEAS V mission, said that @we need to send the humans out because it’s important for the future of the species. I think it’s actually really important to get off Earth. If you look back at the geological record, it is just full of mass extinctions.”

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During the experiment, run by the University of Hawaii, team members wore space suits and travelled in teams whenever they left their base.

They survived on freeze-dried food and a few vegetables grown by their biology specialist.

Emerging from the cramped dome, about the size of a small two-bedroom house, the scientists were most looking forward to eating fresh fruit and eggs.

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Six NASA-backed research subjects who have been cooped up in a Mars-like habitat on a remote Hawaii volcano since January emerged from isolation on Sunday.

They devoured fresh-picked tropical fruits and fluffy egg strata after eating mostly freeze-dried food while in isolation and some vegetables they grew during their mission.

The crew of four men and two women are part of a study designed to better understand the psychological impacts a long-term space mission would have on astronauts.

The data they produced will help NASA select individuals and groups with the right mix of traits to best cope with the stress, isolation and danger of a two-to-three year trip to Mars.

The US space agency hopes to send humans to the red planet by the 2030s.

The crew was quarantined for eight months on a vast plain below the summit of the Big Island’s Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano.

While isolated, the crew members wore space suits and travelled in teams whenever they left their small dome living structure.

During the eight months in isolation, mission biology specialist Joshua Ehrlich grew fresh vegetables.

All of their communications with the outside world were subjected to a 20-minute delay – the time it takes for signals to get from Mars to Earth.

The crew was tasked with conducting geological surveys, mapping studies and maintaining their self-sufficient habitat as if they were actually living on Mars.

This hostile looking environment could well be something we’d expect to see on the red planet, but it’s actually a vast plain below the summit of the world’s largest active volcano on a remote place called Big Island in Hawaii.

The crew of six men and two women are helping the NASA space agency better understand the sort of pressures humans undergo when they’re thousands of miles away in space.

The aim is to enable NASA to be able to identify the people who are best suited to long and isolating missions, especially as it plans to send humans to Mars by 2030.

The project called HI-SEAS is being run by the University of Hawaii and lead investigator Professor Kim Binsted says: “So the previous three missions, the four, eight and 12 month missions, those were primarily looking at crew cohesion and performance. On this mission and going forward we are looking at crew selection and composition. So how do you pick people who are going to be good on these two and a half to three year long deep space missions.”

To maintain the crew’s sense of isolation, bundles of food and supplies were dropped off at a distance from the dome, and the team members sent out a robot to retrieve them.

The crew’s vinyl-covered shelter is about the size of a small two-bedroom home, has small sleeping quarters for each member plus a kitchen, laboratory and bathroom.

They’ve all shared one shower and had two composting toilets.

Despite living off canned food and living in the cramped quarters of a space station the mission’s IT specialist is optimistic about human travel to Mars.

She says:“Long term space travel is absolutely possible. There are certainly technical challenges to be overcome. There are certainly human factors to be figured out, that’s part of what HI-SEAS is for. But I think that overcoming those challenges is just a matter of effort. We are absolutely capable of it.”

There’s no doubt the crew are looking forward to feasting on fresh-picked pineapple, papaya, mango, locally-grown vegetables and fresh eggs when they emerge from their simulated space environment, but they all agree the experience has been invaluable.

Mission 5’s health office Brian Ramos believes it’s an opportunity the next mission candidates should grap with both hands.

Ramos says: “My advice to mission six is say, “Yes”. If you have an opportunity whether it’s filming or learning a new science skill or flying the drone, going out to a lava tube, whatever it is, say, “Yes”, take leadership on things. Honestly you can come out of here in eight months learning a ton of stuff.”

During the mission all the crew’s communications with the outside world were subjected to a 20-minute delay – the time it takes for signals to get from Mars to Earth.

The team wear specially-designed sensors to gauge their moods and proximity to other people in the small, 1,200 square-foot (111-square meter) dome where they have lived.

The devices monitored, among other things, their voice levels and could sense if people were avoiding one another. They could also detect if they were next to each other and arguing.

The crew played games designed to measure their compatibility and stress levels. And when they got overwhelmed by being in such close proximity to teach other, they could use virtual reality devices to escape to tropical beaches or other familiar landscapes.

The HI-SEAS crew was not confined to the dome but they were required to wear spacesuits and whenever they went outside the dome for geological expeditions, mapping studies or other tasks.

Engineering officer Ansley Barnard has advice for dealing with the mission’s most basic problems like waste.

She says: “Remember that the toilet systems are also a system and they’re a living system. So stay in balance with those, let them talk to you if they smell a certain way or act a certain way they’re trying to tell you something, so listen.”

Preparations are already underway for the sixth and final study at the University of Hawaii facility called the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS.

NASA has dedicated about $2.5 million (US) to fund the facility.

Other Mars simulation projects exist around the world, but Hawaii researchers say one of the chief advantages of their project is the area’s rugged, Mars-like landscape, on a rocky, red plain below the summit of Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano.

The success of these simulated environments shouldn’t be taken for granted.

One notorious study in the 1990’s put people in an experimental greenhouse-like habitat in Arizona.

The experiment soon spiraled out of control, carbon dioxide levels rose dangerously, plants and animals died.

The crew went hungry and squabbled so badly during the two years they spent cooped up, relationships didn’t survive the mission.

HI-SEAS is an opaque structure, not a see-through one, and it is not airtight.