Simulated Mars mission reaches the Red Planet (in Moscow)

As a 520-day simulated Mars mission "nears" its destination, one question echoes louder than all others: How's the crew?
Written by John Herrman, Contributor

It's been a while since we checked in with the crew of the Mars500 Mission, the Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems' (IBMP) 520-day simulated trip to Mars, and things are evidently going pretty well: the crew has "arrived" in Martian orbit, and should "land" on the simulated planet surface by February 12th.

Via Space.com, this significant milestone was announced after a full 244 days of travel, during which the crew of six has shared a 550-square-meter hermetically sealed living space, carried out realistic daily work, experimentation and exercise routines, and essentially lived apart from the terrestrial world. Their communication with Earth is even subject to a realistic delay. (Minimum: 8 seconds.)

The goals of the mission are various, and it should theoretically yield a good deal of information about the best habits, living configurations and supply strategies for a real Mars mission. Above all else, though, this is a study on the effects long term isolation has on crew. As such, the crew's latest diary entry, penned by Romain Charles, is short on science, and long on, well, the human aspect:

For a whole evening we all learned our sentences in Chinese. I let you imagine how the noise level rose gradually as we repeated our words aloud. Diego was the first to pick up a phrase and to start learning it. It was one of the most difficult with a lot of ‘sh’ sounds. I joined him when I repeated mine again and again to have a correct Chinese accent: “Fu Ju Dong Hai”. These sounds mean “May your happiness be as vast as the Eastern Ocean (=Pacific Ocean)”.

I was amazed to see that only four Chinese characters could lead to such a complex sentence in English. Our three Russian guys soon added their voices to the general humming filling the volume of our modules.

The entry goes on to describe, in detail, the evening's Chinese New Year celebrations--what they were comprised of, how interesting they were, how much fun everyone had. (One crew member even copped to hiding a piece of cake in his belongings.)

Considering the circumstances, it all seems a bit tame. But that's exactly what researchers were hoping to find: That after eight full months of living together, this crew of six is able to maintain healthy relations, and a good attitude.

At the moment, the crew is in the process of moving supplies from the mothership to the Mars lander in preparation for its first surface walk. According to the Mars500 website:

The first sortie onto the simulated martian surface, housed in a large hall alongside the Mars500 modules, will happen on 14 February: Alexandr Smoleevskiy and Diego Urbina will don the modified Russian Orlan spacesuits and exit the lander’s airlock.

After this brief reprieve, the explorers will re-dock with the mothership and commence the 200-day journey back to Earth, which the ESA, on its website, doesn't hesitate to call "monotonous."

It'll be interesting to see how the crew copes with the return trip. You can keep track of this mission as it progresses through its official website, or by following one of its crew members' Twitter feeds.

Top: Crew members testing suits for forthcoming missions. Right: The simulated Martian surface, and rover. Images courtesy of IBMP.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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