Scientists emerge from year-long Mars simulation

For the last year a group of scientists have been living in a simulation designed to mimic the conditions astronauts would experience on Mars. The domed habitat on Mauna Loa mountain is six metres tall and almost eleven metres across, and has been home to six people: an astrobiologist, a physicist, a soil scientist, an architect, a pilot and a doctor/journalist. Each astronaut (although the crew never left Earth, NASA feels that their year-long occupation of the habitat means they’ve earned the title) had their own bedroom but otherwise all the room was shared, from the two bathrooms to the kitchen, shower and exercise areas.

Because of Mauna Loa’s high elevation the soil is very similar to that found on Mars and the group had limited resources to rely on, just as a crewed mission to the red planet would. During the year they lived in the simulation the group had no physical contact with anyone but each other, and had to work to avoid personal conflicts. They had limited communications with people outside the simulation, always with a 20 minute delay to mimic the lag that astronauts on Mars would face. When they left the habitat to study the area’s geology they always wore water-cooled spacesuits, and their days were strictly scheduled with experiments and routine maintenance work. They were only able to eat foods that could be stored for a long time, so there were no fresh fruits or vegetables, and if equipment broke it had to be mended instead of replaced. At one point the team had to wash from buckets for a fortnight because the shower broke.

The soil of Mauna Loa is very similar to that found on Mars. (Image: Jon Roig).
The soil of Mauna Loa is very similar to that found on Mars. (Image: Jon Roig).

The main purpose of the mission (known as HI-SEAS: Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) was to examine the stresses and demands placed on a small group of people who had to live in such close quarters for such a long time. These are physical as well as psychological, and scientists will examine the experiments and results for some time to come. How the crew adapts and adjusts now they’re no longer confined to their habitat will also be the subject of some study. Crew member Sheyna Gifford, the physician of the team, had previously joked that she should get some special business cards made that would read “Recently returned from Mars. Please speak slowly. My sincerest apologies for knowing nothing about that song/movie/candidate for high political office/celebrity’s latest spouse/kid/dog/tattoo/“wardrobe malfunction”. For best results, avoid cultural references and make no sudden moves.“.

This was the fourth and longest HI-SEAS mission, but it’s not the longest of its kind; that honour goes to a 520 day simulation carried out in Russia.

Featured image: Climbing Mauna Loa by Jon Roig

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