The 520-day simulated journey will provide invaluable data for a real trip, says European Space Agency

Its critics have suggested it amounts to little more than sitting inside a giant tin can in a Moscow hangar with no sun, no fresh water, no alcohol and (one assumes) no sex for 520 interminable days.

But as the six fearless volunteers yesterday afternoon (3JUNE) sealed themselves inside a simulated mission to Mars, grinning and waving goodbye to their families before “blast-off”, scientists insisted they were embarking on an unprecedented experiment that was no laughing matter.

The crewmen - three are Russian, one French, one Chinese and one a Colombian-born Italian - won’t emerge from their isolation until November 2011.

Their goal is to recreate a return journey to the red planet, spanning a year and a half, complete with simulated emergency situations and realistic psychological pressures.

It will, say scientists, provide invaluable data on how a crew would cope with the difficulties and inevitable tedium of long-duration space flight. “This isn’t a joke. It will give a lot of useful information, not just about Mars but also for Earth,” said Dr. Christer Fuglesang, a Swedish astronaut with the human spaceflight directorate of the European Space Agency (ESA).

He rejected suggestions that the experiment, named Mars 500, was a joke. “People are isolated in many places in the world,” he said. “We have scientists in the south pole for a long time, or in submarines. Then there are all those in jail.” The astronauts would be free to leave the experiment at any point, Fuglesang said, adding that he was confident none would.

The crew will live and work in a chain of cramped metal capsules. The highlight of their voyage will be a simulated spacewalk on Mars, which will take place in a large sandpit.

Speaking at a press conference before bidding farewell to the world, the six men conceded their experience would be tough.

This is especially true for Alexey Sitev, the crew’s 38-year-old Russian commander, who was recently married. Asked what his bride Ekaterina thought of his spending the next year and a half away from her, he admitted: “It is difficult to answer this question.” But, he said: “I am not the first traveller who has left his family for a long time to discover new frontiers. When they got back, they found their families waiting for them.” The experiment is taking place in a sprawling hangar at Moscow’s Institute for Medical and Biological Problems, in a suburb of dingy tower blocks and poplar trees. The institute has been studying the likely effects of a Mars mission since the early 1960s.

Mars 500 is designed to recreate as closely as possible the conditions of a spacecraft hurtling through the solar system. A return flight to Mars - 34 million miles from Earth - would take between 18 months and three years.

The six crew will spend 250 days performing flight tasks and experiments along the way - with half of them spending 30 days “on the planet” and the others remaining “in orbit”. Getting home will take a further 240 days.

The 550 sq metre complex that will be their home includes four windowless modules for sleeping, working, storage and for medical and psychological experiments. Each man has a tiny 6 sq metre room. TV is banned but the crew can send emails and communicate with “ground control” via an authentically Martian time delay of 20 minutes. They can also take books, DVDs and video games.

Guardian News & Media 2010

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