HI-SEAS facility

Simulated Mars mission comes to an end after eight months

Image credit: University of Hawaii

A NASA-backed team of six have returned to civilisation after a mock Mars mission that involved living in almost complete isolation for eight months on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, the world’s largest active volcano.

The study was intended to assess the psychological impact that a long-term space mission, such as a trip to Mars, could have on astronauts. Due to the extremely long distance involved, a manned Mars expedition would take at least two to three years.

Simulating unearthly conditions, the ‘capsule’ the team lived in was a dome approximately 110 square metres in size. They mostly consumed canned and freeze-dried food collected from outside the dome by a robot.  Reflecting the time it would take to communicate between Earth and Mars, all communications with the world outside were subject to a 20-minute delay.

They were required to wear spacesuits when they left the dome for short expeditions.

During the experiment, which began in January, the two women and four men wore sensors to monitor their mood and proximity to other people. The devices also monitored their voice levels, and could identify when people argued, either next to one another or shouting at a distance.

They played games designed to quantify their compatibility and stress levels. When they became overwhelmed by the isolation and close proximity to one another, they could put on virtual reality (VR) headsets that showed them beaches and other relaxing scenes.

They were all asked to write diaries recording how they were feeling throughout the period.

NASA hopes that information collected during the experiment could suggest which personality traits might make candidates well suited to survive the isolation of a long space expedition.

“This is our fifth mission, and we have learned a lot over those five missions,” said Professor Kim Binsted of the University of Hawaii, who led the project. “We’ve learned, for one thing, that conflict, even in the best of teams, is going to arise.”

“So what’s really important is to have a crew that, both as individuals and a group, is really resilient, is able to look at that conflict and come back from it.”

NASA has dedicated $2.5 million to a series of six studies of increasing length at the University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) facility. According to Professor Binsted, these primarily these looked at crew cohesion and performance, although the focus is now shifting to crew selection and composition. The next and final mission will last for a full year.

A future human colony on Earth could be supported with an enclosed biosphere to provide food and oxygen, and 3D printing could be used to create structures far from Earth. NASA intends to send a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s, although US President Donald Trump has told leading NASA figures to complete this mission during his presidency.

For decades, similar experiments have been conducted, perhaps most infamously in the case of the 1991-1993 Biosphere 2 experiment. This project involved a team surviving on food and air produced within a sealed glass space in Oracle, Arizona, and resulted in ecosystem failure, hunger, and serious arguments.

“My biggest fear was that we were going to be that crew that turned out like Biosphere 2, which wasn’t a very pretty picture,” said participant James Bevington at the start of the experiment.

In China, volunteers are spending similarly long periods of time in a simulated space cabin, the Yuegong-1, in order to prepare for a China National Space Administration mission to Mars, which is planned for 2036 at the latest.

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