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article imageSpace agencies preparing for 3-year round-trip journey to Mars

By Karen Graham     Feb 23, 2019 in Science
Getting to Mars is a journey that could involve 140 million miles of travel. Astronauts on a Mars mission will be subjected to extreme conditions requiring problem-solving skills and creative thinking. How are we preparing for a Mars mission?
In October 2017, the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) and NASA agreed to conduct joint experiments on astronaut crew ground-based isolation in the framework of future Mars and Moon missions.
The result is a multiphase study conducted in two analog environments. Analog environments are nothing more than field tests conducted here on Earth that have physical similarities to the extreme space environments. A number of things are tested, including new technologies, robotic equipment, vehicles, habitats, communications, power generation, mobility, infrastructure, and storage.
But just as important, human behavior is also tested, including isolation, sleep deprivation, specially designed tasks, and mission control problems that could arise, mimicking real space travel with delayed communication.
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The two analog environments
Northwestern University researchers are developing a predictive model to help NASA anticipate conflicts and communication breakdowns among crew members and head off problems that could make or break a Mission to Mars. To do this, Northwestern professors Noshir Contractor and Leslie DeChurch, and their collaborators are closely following and charting the multiphase studies.
The HERA analog mission is in the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and the SIRIUS mission in the Nazemnyy eksperimental'nyy kompleks (NEK) analog is located in the Institute for Bio-Medical Problems (IBMP) in Russia. The goal of the analog missions is threefold:
1. to establish the effects of isolation and confinement on team functioning
2. to identify methods to improve team performance
3. to develop a predictive model that NASA could use to assemble the ideal team and identify potential issues with already composed teams before and during the mission.
“It’s like astronaut Scott Kelly says, ‘Teamwork makes the dream work,’” said Contractor, the Jane S. and William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the McCormick School of Engineering, School of Communication and the Kellogg School of Management.
An exterior view of isolation facility at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Mos...
An exterior view of isolation facility at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow, Russia.
Three years in a studio apartment
The psychological demands on an astronaut will be exceptional. Imagine living in a studio apartment with nine other crew members on a journey that could become a three-year round trip to the red planet. No matter how well a team can get along, after so long a time, issues will pop up that could affect a crew member's mood, cognition, morale, or interpersonal interaction.
The distance from Earth is significant in the studies because a round-trip to Mars would result in traveling 250 million miles over a period of nearly three years. As we already know, there can be communication gaps of as long as 20 minutes between a spacecraft and Earth.
There can also be equipment failures. This means astronauts must be able to complete the mission on their own without help from Mission Control. This issue can be extended to include using the correct medicine, and supplies to sustain them for the duration.
Space Habitat Docked With Space Exploration Vehicle
Space Habitat Docked With Space Exploration Vehicle
Generally, space could be considered a ver=y harsh environment and one that requires a space traveler to be on their toes constantly. And this is why crews are being put through rigorous tests that cover 14 days on up to the MARS 500 analog mission that lasted 520 days.
“Astronauts are superhumans. They are people who are incredibly physically fit and extremely smart,” said DeChurch, a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern. “We’re taking an already state-of-the-art crew selection system and making it even better by finding the values, traits and other characteristics that will allow NASA to compose crews that will get along.”
More about NASA, IBMP, Mars Mission, analog study, Hera
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