No human astronauts have ever ventured to our neighbouring red planet, but that doesn’t mean research projects haven’t been considering it. The MARS-500 exercise has been designed to understand how astronauts will deal with the isolation during a mission, and the health side-effects of sitting in a metal tube for several months.

Taking place between 2007 and 2011, MARS-500 involved a complex setup of rooms resembling a space ship, with a section devoted to replicating the Martian surface. Several smaller experiments were performed before the larger 520-day ‘mission’ took place.

Crew were placed in these rooms, with a realistic communication time delay of 25-minutes, and given a small number of luxuries in line with what would be found on a mission. Throughout the transit period, the crew carried out experiments to test the effects of radiation, stress, hormone regulation and sleep quality – all factors in an extended mission into space.

Once ‘arriving’ on Mars, crew were able to walk around a mock-up surface and perform various experiments, similar to what would be undertaken during an actual mission.

“A better understanding of these aspects is essential for development of the elements necessary for an exploration mission,” a release from the European Space Agency website stated.

“The knowledge gained during the study is invaluable in providing the basis for the potential development of countermeasures to deal with any unwanted side effects of such a mission.”

It’s uncertain when an actual mission to Mars will be undertaken, as NASA appears to be focusing on low Earth orbit operations. The private sector would certainly appear to be a primary candidate, with companies such as SpaceX announcing plans for Mars vehicles and possible missions.

When humans eventually begin planning for a Mars mission, it’s likely the efforts of simulation programs such as MARS-500 (and others like it) will be extremely useful.

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