An international team of researchers began a gruelling simulation of a flight to Mars on Thursday that will keep them locked in windowless modules for 520 days — the amount of time required for a journey to the Red Planet and back to Earth.

While the experiment, conducted jointly by Russia, China and the European Space Agency, does not involve weightlessness, it will try to tackle the psychological challenges of a real flight to Mars — particularly the stress, claustrophobia and fatigue that a space crew would endure during interplanetary travel.


Researchers test spacesuits during a training session at Moscow's Institute for Medical and Biological Problems, where a crew began a 520-day simulated mission to Mars on Thursday. ((Oleg Voloshin/IBMP/Associated Press))

The six-member, all-male crew — three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian and a Chinese — expressed confidence that the experiment would be a success.

Diego Urbina, the Italian-Colombian member, said the mission would mean "accomplishing dreams about the future, doing something that no human has done before."

Psychologists said the simulation could be even more demanding than a real flight because the crew won't experience any of the euphoria or dangers of actual space travel. They have also warned that months of confinement would push the team to the limits of endurance as they grow increasingly tired of each other.

Well aware of this hazard, crew members equipped themselves accordingly. For instance, French participant Romain Charles said he was bringing along a guitar so he could entertain the other team members.

Isolation impact

The main task of the Mars-500 experiment, conducted by the Moscow-based Institute for Medical and Biological Problems, is to study the effects of long isolation to better understand how a space crew should cope with stress and fatigue.

The facility for the experiment is at Russia's premier space medicine centre. It comprises several interconnected modules with a total volume of 550 cubic metres and a separate built-in imitator of the surface of Mars for a mock landing.

The researchers will communicate with the outside world via internet — delayed and occasionally disrupted to imitate the effects of space travel. They will eat preserved food similar to that offered on the International Space Station, and will shower every 10 days. The crew will have two days off in a week, except when emergencies are simulated.

The ESA said the crew will regularly play video games as part of the agency's project to develop personalized software to interact with crews on future space missions.

In addition to 27-year-old Urbina and 30-year-old Charles, the crew members are Sukhrob Kamolov, 32; Alexander Smoleyevsky, 33; and Alexey Sitev, 38, all Russians, and Wang Yue, 26, from China.

For mission captain Sitev, the experiment means separation from his wife just a few weeks after the two wed. When asked about marital repercussions, he tried to put on a brave face.

"I'll tell you that it's difficult for me to part with my family, just as it is for any other person," he said just before the experiment began.