mars colony

Mars colony isolation trial saw Earth communications wane over time

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An isolation experiment that is designed to test the human psychological response in a simulated trip to Mars has revealed significant changes to the way participants communicated with the Earth as the experiment continued.

At its closest proximity, Mars is still almost 55 million kilometres away from Earth, making communication delays and supply issues between the two worlds unavoidable. This requires crew members to effectively cope with stressful conditions by themselves, with limited autonomous resources available on board.

In 2017 and 2019, two isolation experiments - dubbed 'Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station' (aka SIRIUS) - were conducted across periods of 17 days and four months, respectively, in a facility in Moscow, Russia using international and mixed gender crews.

These missions were designed to study the effects of isolation and confinement on human psychology in order to help prepare for long-duration space exploration beyond Earth.

Researchers have published a paper revealing how the crews’ communication with the outside world in these experiments diminished over time, causing friction initially, followed eventually by greater cohesion amongst the team.

“The crews in such missions tend to reduce their communication with mission control during isolation, sharing their needs and problems less and less,” said Dr Dmitry Shved, of the Russian Academy of Sciences and author of the study.

“The rare bursts of contacts were seen during important mission events (eg landing simulation). Also, there was a convergence of communication styles of all SIRIUS crew members and an increase in crew cohesion in the course of their mission. This happened even though the crew composition was diverse by gender and also cultural background, with pronounced individual differences.”

Among the different ways the crews’ behaviour was measured included the tracking of facial expressions and speech acoustic characteristics (intensity, frequency, and variability of speech) from video recordings.

The researchers recorded 320 audio conversations with external observers lasting 11 hours in the first 10 days alone. However, this fell to just 34 conversations lasting a total of 77 minutes during the last 10 days.

11 days into the experiment, an artificial communications delay was added similar to that which would be experienced by those living on the Moon, Mars and beyond. Over the course of four months, the number of video messages sent to mission control decreased from 200 in the first week of isolation to between 115 and 120. The duration of these videos also decreased significantly.

Under these conditions, the researchers also noted differences in communication between men and women participants. In women, there were more manifestations of joy and sadness emotions, while men were more likely to demonstrate anger.

“It should be generally noted that, while the male and female parts of the SIRIUS-19 crew showed significant differences in the style and content of their communication with the control centre in the first month of isolation, then, during the course of the experiment, these differences were smoothed out,” the authors wrote.

In 2014, former E&T reporter Tereza Pultarova took part in a similar experiment, living for two weeks in a simulation of astronaut conditions at the Mars Desert Research Station.

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