Mars 500: fake space mission reaches its goal

A multinational team of 'astronauts' have simulated a Mars landing after nearly a year in isolation. But was it worth the journey?

On Saturday, after a voyage of nearly a year, a team of brave astronauts reached the climactic point of their long and arduous mission. Bulky in their spacesuits, the multinational crew opened the heavy door of their Mars lander and set foot, for the first time, on the harsh rock of the red planet.

Except, of course, they weren't on Mars at all. Their Martian rock was nothing more than sand and gravel scattered on the floor of a specially constructed room on the outskirts of Moscow. Their 'spaceship' is just a set of metal boxes stuck together with pipes.

After ten days doing mock experiments on the 'Martian' surface, the men will climb back aboard their fake craft and then sit there for 240 days, pretending to fly home.

So what on Earth – or on Mars – is the point? These fake astronauts are taking part in the longest simulated spaceflight in history, and scientists say it's a crucial step towards carrying out a real Mars mission.

We haven't yet built a spaceship capable of carrying humans to Mars but, even if we do, that will only be half the battle. We'll also have to prepare a crew that can handle the immense psychological difficulties of being alone in space, cramped into a tiny living area, facing terrifying dangers.

Like real astronauts, the men of the Mars 500 simulation have to deal with total isolation.

They can only communicate via email, and all messages have a 20-minute delay, to allow them to be beamed from Earth to 'space'. For entertainment they rely on books, DVDs and each other.

The loneliness and stress can be destructive. In 1982, two Soviet astronauts spent 211 days in total silence because they annoyed each other so much. In 1985, another astronaut had a nervous breakdown in space and had to be evacuated. On a real mission to Mars, such tensions could be disastrous.

One small step
Mission planners have done all they can to make Mars 500 as realistic as possible. They even throw in simulated technical problems and emergencies.

But not every danger of space can be simulated. Real astronauts face the crippling effects of prolonged zero gravity, which causes muscles and bones to waste away. Even worse, they are exposed to huge doses of radiation. A severe solar flare could wipe out the crew of any Mars mission, and even low doses cause cancer and brain damage.

If humans ever did land on the surface of Mars, they would have to endure an exhausting and perilous ordeal. Standing on the red earth of an alien planet, would they think it had been worth the trip?

You Decide

  1. How would you feel being stuck on a spaceship for 500 days? Could you handle it?
  2. Why do humans always strive to explore? Should we be trying so hard to reach the stars while so many problems remain at home?

Activities

  1. Design your own spacecraft. You'll need to include engines, fuel, living-quarters, laboratories, a landing vehicle and a way to get back home.
  2. Write an email from an astronaut on a deep space mission to a family member back home.

Some People Say...

“Space exploration is humanity's only future.”

What do you think?

Q & A

We sent men to the moon 40 years ago. Why can't we get to Mars?
It's nearly 1000 times further away – a journey of 220 million miles.
So it's far, and dangerous?
And expensive. The Apollo Programme, which put men on the moon, cost billions of dollars. A Mars mission would likely cost even more.
Still, it would be exciting wouldn't it?
Exciting? Yes. Useful? Maybe not. Robotic probes have already been to Mars, and a human can't do much more scientific research there than a robot can.A Perhaps we never will. But although robots are easier and more effective, human space exploration has a romantic pull. Just as American pioneers pushed ever further into the Wild West, there is still a feeling that space, as Star Trek put it, is 'the Final Frontier'.

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