It is to help real space crews cope with the stress of interplanetary travel.

After 233 days in a locked steel capsule, six researchers on a 520-day mock flight to Mars are all feeling strong and ready to “land” on the Red Planet, the mission director said on January 21.

The all-male crew, of three Russians, a Chinese, a Frenchman and an Italian-Colombian, has been inside windowless capsules at a Moscow research centre since June 2010. Their mission aims to help real space crews in the future cope with the confinement and stress of interplanetary travel.

The researchers communicate with the outside world via e-mails and video messages, occasionally delayed to give them the feel of being farther than a few yards (meters) away from mission control. The crew members eat canned food similar to that eaten on the International Space Station and shower only once a week.

Landing on February 12

None of the men has considered abandoning the mission, although they are free to walk out at any time, mission director and former cosmonaut Boris Morukov said. “They are still motivated, but there is a certain fatigue, which is natural,” he said.

The six men are due to “land” on Mars on February 12, 2011 and spend two days researching the planet. They then begin the months-long return flight to Earth, expected to be the most challenging part of the mission. (The end of the 520-day study, with the crew landing on Earth is on November 5, 2011.)

“It will be very tough on the boys because of the monotony,” Morukov said. “The fatigue and the thought that the mission is over can be fraught with negative consequences.”

The Mars500 experiment is being conducted by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP), the European Space Agency and China's space training centre.

In an effort to reproduce the conditions of space travel, with exception of weightlessness, the crew has living quarters the size of a bus connected with several other modules for experiments and exercise. A separate built-in imitator of the Red Planet's surface is attached for the mock landing.

A real Mars mission is decades away — there are huge costs, major technological challenges and the task of creating a compact shield to protect crew from deadly space radiation.— AP

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