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Second Mars Simulation Underway

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MarsDomeJust under a year ago, GFR reported on a four-month simulated Mars mission taking place in Hawaii, which focused primarily on feeding astronauts decent food for their long-term stays on other planets. Hi-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog & Simulation) researchers are now testing various kinds of extra vehicular activities, comparing the difference between 3D-printed tools and conventional instruments, devising better and safer astronaut training and preparation methods, identifying techniques for distinguishing different volcanic minerals on Mars, growing plants under different wavelengths, and refining methods of converting trash to gas, as well as studying psychological and emotional challenges and adjustments to such a taxing mission.

The Hi-SEAS simulations are a result of a partnership between NASA and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Three male and three female researchers share a 1000-square-foot dome-shaped habitat on the Big Island near the Mauna Loa volcano, over 8,000 feet above sea level. It’s about as Mars-like as a place can be on Earth.

While all of the scientific studies are interesting and necessary, especially given that Mars One doesn’t have its simulation up and running yet (though it’s apparently on the way), I find the psychological and emotional aspects of the simulation to be the most fascinating, largely because they grapple with questions that aren’t quite as cut and dried as the technical ones.

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Psychologist Ron Williams is focusing on the mental challenges inherent in getting to and staying on another planet, including adjusting to being cooped up for long periods of time. Even though the simulation is only four months long, which is roughly half the time it would take to get to Mars, the conditions are similar enough to provide useful data, especially given that the situation is one big unknown. He’s studying how people’s cognitive abilities and personalities contribute to their adjustment (or lack thereof), which he measures by gauging the participants’ levels of anxiety and depression, among other indicators.

One major component of the simulation is the isolation and stress the researchers endure. They do get to communicate with their friends and family via email, which would be the case for Mars settlers, though, given the distance, Skype and other real-time interactions aren’t feasible. The delay would be around six minutes at a minimum, and quite possibly longer than that, so the researchers participating in the simulation have a 20-minute artificial delay imposed on their communications. They also get a grand total of eight minutes in the shower each week and have to wear get-ups very similar to space suits when they go outside, even though it’s pretty darn warm where they are. It will be interesting to see what these studies show, although it’s impossible for the knowledge that they’ll be home in four months not to affect the results. Real Mars colonists will have to endure knowing that their journey is one way.

Hi-SEAS researchers aren’t the only thinking about such details. Below, the Brothers McLeod, a UK-based animation team, offer their take on the first communication between a human on Mars and his wife back home. Maybe it’s a good thing phone calls won’t be possible.

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