NASA plans yearlong Mars simulation to test limits of isolation

NASA plans yearlong Mars simulation to test limits of isolation
An illustration depicts a common space in the interior of a Mars simulation habitat planned by NASA. Image courtesy of ICON Technology

ORLANDO, Fla., Sept. 1 (UPI) -- NASA wants four people to test the limits of human isolation by placing them in a simulated Mars habitat for a year, cut off from the world except for delayed communication and possible simulated spacesuit walks.

The simulation, planned for Johnson Space Center in Houston, won't be the first time the space agency attempts to mimic a stay on Mars, but it will be one of the longest.


NASA seeks applicants between 30 and 55 years old who are willing and able to perform a daily routine that could include taking cognitive tests, performing indoor exercise, eating prepackaged food, engaging in limited social media and working on indoor gardens of leafy greens.

"NASA has a lot of good data on astronauts in the space station for up to six months. We've got a lot of good health data, performance data," Michele Parker, a NASA project manager, told UPI.

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"But we don't have a lot of data beyond that six-month mark, or associated with challenges that we would experience on Mars, especially for the communication delays and limits on fresh food," Parker said.

Such delays could be up to 45 minutes, she said, to simulate the period when Mars is farthest from Earth at 249 million miles.

The isolation and limited resources apparently don't seem so odious to many people. NASA officials said they're surprised by a flood of interest in advance of the Sept. 17 deadline for applications.

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"I think a lot of people are excited about Mars," Parker said.

Project begins in 2022

The first round of the project is to begin in fall 2022. The volunteers -- to be called crew members -- won't interact with anyone except via delayed transmissions like they would experience on the Red Planet.

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The simulation's primary goal is to collect health and performance data from the crew, so NASA can learn how those who someday travel to a base on Mars might react to isolation, Parker said.

"We'll be figuring out how these challenges and constraints, for humans in a Mars environment, affect performance," she said.


Exactly what kinds of data and how it will be collected may not be disclosed because of privacy concerns, she said. While astronauts on the International Space Station station collect blood, urine and fecal samples, researchers still are meeting to determine medical tests needed during the simulation.

The men and women chosen will be required to check in daily and report how they are feeling. Eight more crew members may be chosen for future missions in 2024 and 2025.

Testing food storage

A major goal of the program would be to test food storage for a year, which might provide insight into health and psychological issues, Parker said.

"We will test a Mars-realistic spaceflight food system, because fresh delivery of food is a regular highlight for astronauts living at the space station -- and that won't be possible on Mars," she said.

The stored food will be supplemented with greens grown on the simulated base to provide fresh flavors and nutrition.

Such indoor gardening and other activities will occur in a 1,700-square-foot module -- Mars Dune Alpha -- that will be 3D-printed by Texas-based ICON Technology.

The habitat will be a demonstration of new building methods, Melodie Yashar, director of building design and performance at ICON, said in an interview.

"Both NASA and ICON have a vested interest in demonstrating how 3D printing can be used for a Mars habitat," Yashar said.

That's because sending construction materials to Mars will be nearly impossible, but 3D printing may be able to use Martian dust or rocks to build structures, she said.

The design of a habitat for lengthy isolation also is crucial, she said.

"NASA had a specific interest in separating recreational areas from working areas, and [having] redundant restrooms within both areas so that they could be evaluated for optimum location in such a habitat," Yashar said.

Time apart

The habitat -- about the size of an average American home -- will allow crew members to find time apart from each other and from workspaces to diffuse tension, she said. It will have four private bedrooms, dedicated workstations, medical stations and food-growing stations, with shared living and kitchen area in-between.

"The general idea is that the crew quarters are in the far end of the habitat. You go from the crew quarters to the main recreation area and then the working quarters, and then finally the airlock, which will allow you to exit the habitat," Yashar said.


The roof and ceiling will arch upward in the middle, meaning each room will have a different ceiling height and feel "to avoid spatial monotony and crew member fatigue," the company said.

Some furniture will be movable to allow for differences in daily routine. Crew members will be able to set levels for lighting, temperature and sound control to help "regulate the daily routine, circadian rhythm, and overall well-being of the crew," according to Icon.

Besides food and resource limitations, challenges may include dealing with equipment failures, performing simulated spacewalks and conducting scientific research, according to NASA.

Hobbies and routines are recommended methods to cope with isolation, Lisa Stojanovski, a science communicator and participant in a 2018 Mars simulation in Hawaii, told UPI. Her simulation, intended to last four months, was sponsored in part by NASA and run by the University of Hawaii.

"I took my knitting needles just to have that kind of relaxing hobby to fall back on," Stojanovski said. "Personalizing your space with things like photographs and letters from the home or your favorite pillow also is going to be important."


Her simulation, however, was cut short after four days when a crew member suffered a medical emergency.

Exploration of Mars through history

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used two different cameras to create this panoramic selfie, comprised of 60 images, in front of Mont Mercou, a rock outcrop that stands 20 feet tall on March 26, 2021, the 3,070th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. These were combined with 11 images taken by the Mastcam on the mast, or "head," of the rover on March 16. The hole visible to the left of the rover is where its robotic drill sampled a rock nicknamed "Nontron." The Curiosity team is nicknaming features in this part of Mars using names from the region around the village of Nontron in southwestern France. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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