Fake Mars Mission Befallen By Real Drama

“The Mars Society is a group that prepares for man’s eventual exploration of Mars with simulations in the Utahan desert. But their mission logs, posted regularly on the group’s website, reveal a tension that is very real—and very funny. The two-week simulations, including various experiments and equipment tests, take place at the Mars Desert Research Station, located outside Hanksville, Utah. The volunteers who participate are expected to take the matter very seriously—after all, our future Mars colony depends on it. But of course, some pretend Mars astronauts are more dedicated than other pretend Mars astronauts and this is where the trouble starts. The current team occupying the Research Station, Crew 90, is led by Nancy Vermeulen. According to their “Mission Info” page, they are the first team comprised entirely of Belgians. In the wake of the trouble they’ve been having, it now seems ominous that the last line of their statement reads, “the media is following our project very closely.” Indeed, Geekosystem picked up on the mission and faithfully documented its simmering turmoil. After days of snits and snubs, the tension came to a head on February 15. In that day’s report, Commander Vermeulen explains:

“…The growing frustration that after 9 days PE, Nora and Margaux are still not able to manage the Hab systems/ standard engineering reporting system (and even don’t consider this as a problem!), exploded during the lunch. The lack of dedication to the mission of some people overloads the others and it had to be spoken out. The problem was already there from the first day, when it came out that some people didn’t prepare anything for the mission, didn’t look at the manuals, which were send to them months ago and didn’t even prepare the tasks for their own role. The accusation into my direction that I didn’t brief enough about the systems was too much. Nicky almost exploded. Arjan reacted double: At one hand he couldn’t stop criticising the incompetence of some others during last week, but during the discussion he acted as if he was from Barcelona (don’t know anything). He has his own mission and own world…”

The Commander’s Reports for the last days of the mission, which ended yesterday, obscure the interpersonal conflicts that paralyzed the crew. Only a few bloody noses are referenced, perhaps as physical manifestations of the crew’s frustrations.”

What’s the point of a fake 500-day Mars mission?
BY Phil McKenna / 22 October 2009

“The European Space Agency is seeking six volunteers to spend 520 days inside a sealed isolation facility to study the psychological effects of a journey to Mars. The 2010 Mars-500 “mission” at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow will simulate a round trip to the Red Planet – albeit shorter than the real thing – and follows a similar 105-day study that ended in July. But does spending a year and a half locked inside a tin can on Earth tell us anything about how humans might behave on a high-risk interplanetary odyssey?

How much can Mars-500 be like the real thing?
Once inside the windowless isolation chamber, the team will mimic each stage of a Mars mission – including the journey, landing and return to Earth. A few aspects cannot be simulated, however. There will be no radiation exposure or zero gravity, and if there is a real emergency during the simulation, volunteers will have the right to get out at any time. A study by Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, argues that such experiments lack some key attributes of real long-haul space flight, such as dangerous voyages through unknown territory and the impossibility of rescue. Suedfeld concludes that mission planners would better identify the psychological stresses likely to be experienced by Mars explorers by reading the diaries of explorers on long expeditions over sea and land in previous centuries. Still, there are many things the Mars-500 experiment will reveal that historical records cannot. Volunteers will undergo an array of tests that will monitor stress and hormone levels, immune response and sleep patterns, as well as group dynamics.

What can we learn during 500 days that we can’t from 100?
The 105-day isolation study went off without a hitch, but crew members struggled with boredom and the stresses of a cramped environment. An experiment that lasts five times as long would better demonstrate how a crew would hold up for a 900-day Martian mission.

What other places could inform Mars mission planners?
Some behavioural scientists feel Antarctic research stations or nuclear submarines offer better analogies to prolonged space flight. But although Antarctic outposts have the necessary elements of danger, confinement and isolation, they lack the high level of automation found in space flight. Nuclear submarine control rooms are more like spacecraft, but military secrecy puts them off limits for academic research. A better model may be the experience of astronauts aboard space stations orbiting Earth. Their stays have lasted up to 438 days.

Can humans cope with prolonged space station missions?
By and large, space station missions have gone without incident. However, NASA astronauts on a three-month mission to Skylab in 1973 went on strike for a day saying they felt overworked and unsupported by their ground crew. In 1982, two Soviet cosmonauts spent most of a 211-day flight in silence because they got on each other’s nerves. Three years later, a six-month Soviet mission was cut short when a cosmonaut had a nervous breakdown. Sexual harassment could also endanger a mission. In an eight-month space station simulation in 2000, a man twice tried to kiss a woman against her will. As a result, locks were installed between different crew compartments. Astronauts in orbit often express feelings of neglect by ground crews, in part because of lags in communication and perhaps also because of a need by astronauts to take out their frustrations on others. As a result, ground crews as well as astronauts now receive psychological training.”

Earthbound experiment to recreate stress of Mars mission
BY Kelly Young / April 2007

“Scientists are being asked to submit research proposals for a 500-day-long study simulating a human mission to Mars. The programme, a joint project between Russia and the European Space Agency, would be the longest simulation of its kind. The 1.5-year Mars-500 simulation is designed to recreate some of the isolation and stresses that crew members might feel on an actual roundtrip to Mars, which would take about twice as long. In late 2008 or early 2009, six people will enter a mock spacecraft in Russia consisting of a series of connected metal tanks. The 200-square-metre ‘spacecraft’ will include a medical area, a research area, a crew compartment and a kitchen. The first leg of the experiment will last about 250 days and will simulate the journey to Mars. Then, part of the crew will enter a special Mars descent vehicle tank for 30 days to simulate a Mars landing. The entire crew will then make the return trip back to Earth. The Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Biomedical Problems (IMBP) has already received more than 70 applications for the mission.

Frozen food
ESA will get to choose two crew members for the project, although it has not yet finalised its criteria. ESA scientists plan to start the selection process in June 2007 and pick the participants and the science experiments in October. During the 500-day study, the crew will try to live as a real crew headed to Mars might. At the beginning of the study, they will be given all the food they will ever get on the mission. That means they will largely subsist on frozen meals, though Russia might allow the crew to have a greenhouse to grow fresh produce. Their day-to-day lives will be similar to crew members on the International Space Station, except for the presence of gravity. They will have cleaning, cooking, maintenance and scientific duties. They may even have press conferences with real reporters. “The design will be such you start to forget it is a real simulation,” says Marc Heppener, ESA’s head of science and applications in the directorate of human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration. “People can be completely absorbed by games on the computer. You can go pretty far in a simulation.”

Communications delays
To make it even more realistic, there will be a 20-minute communications delay between people in the spacecraft and “mission control” to simulate the time lag faced by spacecraft far from Earth. The reactions of the “ground controllers” will also be studied. “Just imagine what would happen if you were on the phone and you hear on the other side, ‘Help!’ but you know this ‘Help!’ was uttered 20 minutes ago,” Heppener told New Scientist. “And if you say, ‘What can I do?’ it will be another 20 minutes before they hear you. That’s part of the psychology of this kind of study, and that’s absolutely not trivial.” Scientists might be able to learn how the crew reacts to minor emergencies, such as a water line breaking. As on a real extended space mission, it is likely that at least one crew member will have medical training. But if there is a real emergency during the simulation, “any person has the right to get out”, Heppener says. “However, we want to make sure this only happens in real emergencies.”

Bloody brawls
The extreme isolation and confinement of the simulation will lend important insights into how to design long-duration crewed space missions. “If I imagine myself where I really cannot see home, the planet where I live and where every other human being is, I can imagine that is quite significant,” Heppener says. Russia has conducted shorter simulations in the past and has seen firsthand the issues that arise, including sexual harassment. In an eight-month IMBP simulation in 2000, a Russian man twice tried to kiss a Canadian female researcher after two other Russians had gotten into a bloody brawl. As a result, locks were installed between the Russian and international crews’ quarters (see Out-of-this-world sex could jeopardise missions). The 500-day study will be preceded by one or two 100-day simulations to work out the early kinks. The first 100-day study could begin in early 2008. In conjunction with the Russian study, ESA is also seeking proposals for the French and Italian Concordia research station in Antarctica in the hopes of running two parallel studies in two different isolated settings.”

Monotony was ‘most difficult part’ of simulated Mars trip
BY Rachel Courtland / July 2009

“A group of volunteers that spent 105 days locked up in a mock spaceship simulating a trip to Mars is finishing up their final tests this week. The programme, which was used to test the psychological and physiological effects of isolation, will pave the way for a longer 520-day mission that will take place in the first half of 2010. Isolation has long been a part of human exploration, both on Earth and in space. But manned trips to Mars could be a challenge for even the most balanced and carefully selected crews, since the missions would involve small crews, tight quarters, years of separation from friends and family, and communications delays that could last up to 40 minutes. To investigate issues that would arise in such situations, the European Space Agency has partnered with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow to arrange a 105-day simulated mission to Mars. The experiment took place in a multi-floored facility in Moscow that includes a mock spacecraft, a descent vehicle, and a simulation of the Martian surface. On 14 July, a crew of six emerged from the module. Although researchers are still analysing the results of the tests conducted during the simulation and performing follow-up tests on the participants this week, the mission seems to have finished largely without incident. “The most difficult part of the mission was not a single event but more the monotony,” says Oliver Knickel, a mechanical engineer in the German army and a volunteer for the 105-day mission.

Less focused
The bulk of the crew’s working day was occupied by psychological and physiological tests, Knickel told New Scientist. The crew ate astronaut-style pre-packaged meals that were intermittently enhanced by fresh vegetables like radishes and cabbage that the crew grew in a small greenhouse. In his off-time, Knickel passed the time by writing letters, learning Russian, and playing poker and dice with his crewmates. But the isolation and confinement in a cramped space did take its toll. “I had a hard time focusing on the things I was doing,” Knickel told New Scientist, adding that he did not retain newly learned Russian vocabulary words was well as he did back home.

Right chemistry
Crew compatibility is important for the success of future Mars missions. “You have a crew that has to live together and function as a team for a long period of time, and they really can’t leave that environment,” says Jay Buckey, a doctor and former astronaut at Dartmouth University in Hanover, New Hampshire. Participant Cyrille Fournier, an airline pilot from France, says there was a good sense of camaraderie over the 3.5 months the six volunteers spent together. “We had an outstanding team spirit throughout the entire 105 days,” he said in a statement. “Living for that long in a confined environment can only work if the crew is really getting along with each other. The crew is the crucial key to mission success, which became very evident to me during the 105 days.”

Self-directed mission
During the mission, the crew had to respond to simulated emergencies and deal with a communication delay of up to 20 minutes each way when talking to ‘ground controllers’ – mimicking the time it takes for radio signals to travel between a Mars-bound spacecraft and Earth. Such communication lags mean that crews would not be able to respond in real-time to commands from the ground and would probably need to function fairly autonomously. Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California in San Francisco, and colleagues used a month in the 105-day experiment to examine what happens when crews are given more freedom to devise their own schedules in order to meet a mission’s overarching goals. This increased autonomy has also been tested in the Haughton-Mars Project in the Canadian Arctic (see What is it like to live in isolation for months on end?) and at an underwater facility called Aquarius off the coast of Florida. In the future, Kanas hopes to perform a similar experiment aboard the International Space Station.

Safe environment
Isolation studies on Earth allow researchers to set up carefully controlled experiments, but they do have a downside. “Ground missions don’t really capture the danger in the space environment. If someone does want to quit, they can just knock on the door and be let out,” Kanas told New Scientist. Not so on a future trip to Mars, says Kanas: “There’s no possibility of support in case of a medical or psychological emergency. You’re really on your own.” To deal with such issues, other researchers, including Buckey, are developing software that would allow astronauts on long missions to act as their own counsellors and conflict negotiators.”

In space no one else can hear you scream at each other
BY Hazel Muir / 14 March 2006

“It’s the moment every wannabe astronaut dreams of: landing on Mars. Just imagine making that momentous speech as you plant your flag in the red soil, the sun rising behind you over Olympus Mons. Perhaps you’ll find fame as the discoverer of the first subtle signs of alien life. How breathtaking to see the Earth rise in the night sky, just a white dot among millions of others. But there is a flip side. By the time you make that speech, you will have been cooped up inside a metal box for six months. You’ll not talk to your friends or family for another two years. You and your fellow inmates are bound to have survived some hair-raising, potentially fatal crises, and everyone’s nerves will be in tatters. The pilot won’t talk to the engineer. And if that geologist looks at you and rolls his eyes one more time, you’ll punch his lights out. Despite the exciting goals, a crewed mission to Mars would mean enormous psychological stress. Seeing Earth as an anonymous dot could leave you with a profound sense of isolation, according to former astronaut Carl Walz, who spent more than six consecutive months on the International Space Station (ISS). “The impact of not being able to see the Earth while you’re in space is a big deal,” he says. Until we leave Earth far behind, we won’t really know the effects of that.

NASA’s plans for a crewed mission to Mars sometime after 2020 are hugely ambitious. The spacecraft would take four to six months to reach the planet. After 18 months on the surface, the astronauts would take another four to six months to return to Earth, making it by far the longest space mission ever undertaken. NASA will have a tough job on its hands building a spacecraft capable of getting to the Red Planet and back, as well as finding ways to keep the astronauts in good physical shape during such a mammoth trip. The psychological challenges are no less daunting, though psychologists are now beginning to understand what keeps astronauts happy and mentally healthy. “We’ve started to learn a lot about how people really behave in space,” says Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California and the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco. “I think we now have some knowledge that we could use to prepare astronauts for a Mars mission.”

NASA has already seen how conflict between astronauts and ground crew can escalate. Feeling overworked and unsupported, astronauts on a three-month mission to the Skylab station in 1973 went on strike for a day. They eventually cleared the air after a heated argument. But such mutinies could be potentially disastrous, especially if they were to happen during some kind of crisis, if the spacecraft went out of control, for example. To head off the possibility of further rebellions, Kanas and his team have spent the past 10 years studying the behaviour of astronauts who spent up to seven months on the now defunct Russian space station Mir, or on the ISS. Eight Russian cosmonauts and five American astronauts took part on Mir, along with four three-person crews and three two-person crews on the ISS, which celebrated its fifth anniversary of continuous habitation in November. Nearly 130 American and Russian mission controllers were involved as well.

During the missions, astronauts and ground controllers completed a weekly questionnaire composed of questions from three standard psychological tests to assess mood, crew interactions and working environment. Given a list of adjectives like “gloomy”, “energetic” and “resentful”, for instance, they would give a score for how strongly they felt that particular emotion. Other questions measured factors such as their views of the group’s cohesiveness and levels of job satisfaction. Kanas’s team was surprised by the crews’ answers. They had expected to see astronauts’ morale decline during the second half of each mission. Psychologists have seen this effect in small isolated groups in Antarctica, when morale would often plummet after the mid-point of the stay, regardless of whether it was five or eight months. “People realise they’ve finally made it to the half-way point, but then it dawns on them that they have a whole other half to go,” says Kanas. “After that, they tend to report increased tension, homesickness and depression, and a drop in the cohesion of the group.” In extreme cases, people become fiercely territorial, so that minor intrusions like borrowing someone’s pen or sitting in “their” chair can ignite a brawl.

But this did not happen on Mir or the ISS. Kanas’s study suggests that astronauts’ morale stays pretty steady unless unusually stressful events occur. “Our subjects did react to events such as a fire or a problem with the oxygen generator,” says Kanas, who reported the results in October at the 56th International Astronautical Congress in Fukuoka, Japan. “In that week, they had slightly more negative emotions than usual. But their morale returned to baseline a week later.” Kanas says the likely reason for the astronauts’ level mood is that ground crew intervene to help astronauts deal with stress and boredom. On Mir, if psychologists sensed that a crew member was feeling low, they would schedule family chats, for instance. Supply missions from Earth also brought the Mir and ISS crews surprises and treats – their favourite foods, or letters and knick-knacks from family and friends – which always perked them up.

But one persistent problem did crop up for both Mir and the ISS. Crew members who reported tension and stress also tended to feel, as the Skylab astronauts did in 1973, that ground control were not supporting them enough – even when there was no clear evidence for this. It is commonly known as “displacement”. “It’s just like when you have a tough day at work,” says Kanas. “Maybe your boss yells at you and you can’t yell back, so you go home and yell at your husband or kick the cat. You displace the anger you’re feeling onto somebody not related.” Frequent, frank communication can help prevent these problems festering. But that’s not going to be easy on a voyage to the Red Planet. Mars lies anything from 3 to 22 light minutes away from the Earth, depending on the orientation of the planets. So to say “hello” and get a reply will take up to three-quarters of an hour. There’s no way around that. Communication will be by email only.

And there won’t be any morale-boosting treats. NASA is considering sending a pod of supplies to arrive on the Martian surface ahead of the crew, but that will be about it. One possibility, though, is that the mother ship could have little compartments with surprises locked inside, and the ground crew could email codes to the astronauts to unlock them. “That is a very good idea because it’s an extension of the kinds of supportive activities we think have worked,” says Kanas. Nonetheless, he says, there will be a high risk of so-called adjustment reactions occurring as the mission drags on. Full-blown psychoses such as schizophrenia, paranoia and hallucinations have not been reported on space missions – not overtly, anyway – probably because potential astronauts with a family history of such problems are unlikely to make it past the selection process. But astronauts can become anxious and depressed, or suffer anxiety-induced psychosomatic ailments. Legend has it that one Russian mission was terminated early because a crew member had anxiety-induced heart palpitations.

These problems can only get worse on a trip to Mars. Isolation might seem overpowering to them as the Earth shrinks to a tiny dot among millions of others in the inky black sky. And there will be no quick escape route. “If someone gets depressed or suicidal, you can’t send them back very easily,” says Kanas. For this reason, he says it will be essential for the crew to have access to psychoactive drugs and to multitask. For example, the first mission will probably consist of six crew, including a pilot, an engineer, a biologist and a geologist. The other two might be a physicist and a doctor – should the doctor get sick, for instance, the biologist may be able to act in his or her place. It is the make-up and functioning of the group as a whole that interests Rachael Eggins, a psychologist at the Australian National University in Canberra. Since 2002, she and her colleagues have been monitoring volunteers at Mars simulation stations funded by the US Mars Society and the Mars Society of Australia.

The centrepiece of each station in the Utah desert and in the outback in Southern Australia, is an 8-metre-wide cylindrical habitat, or hab. Crews of four to six volunteers – mainly scientists and engineers, including many astronaut-wannabes – live there typically for two or three weeks. They live and work as if they were on Mars, testing reconnaissance robots and collecting rocks in mock spacesuits. They also send reports to a simulated “mission control” in a nearby city or support organisation. During Eggins’s studies, the volunteers completed questionnaires to assess their interactions with others. This revealed that people tend to cluster into cliques that often put their own goals ahead of the whole mission’s objectives. This led to a mishap in a Utah simulation in 2003, when the group split into three teams. One stayed in the hab, and two went out on separate rover trips, returning at about the same time. One person in the second rover damaged his helmet and was theoretically leaking oxygen. “It was obvious to everybody that in theory, if this was really Mars, then this guy would die,” says Eggins. However, the first team insisted on getting into the hab first and told the others to wait their turn, she says: “The first team were not thinking at all in terms of the overall goal of the mission, just of their own rights and the distinct subgroup.”

In another Utah simulation last summer, Eggins’s colleague Sheryl Bishop of the University of Texas in Galveston studied the differences between an all-male crew, who lived in the hab for two weeks, and an all-female crew who moved in for the following fortnight. Both teams performed well and were very productive, but they did differ. Personality surveys showed that several of the men scored low on “agreeableness” and “conscientiousness”, and the group’s behaviour echoed this. Every night, the women filed daily reports to mission control by the agreed time. But the men were persistently late. They said they preferred to use the time to explore outside on the buggies.

Cabin fever
And while the leader of the men’s team emailed the women’s team to say that they would give up the sleeping quarters for the handover night when the women arrived, some men were reluctant to do so. They had made a pact to hold out. “The men’s team had far more individualistic personalities, with a greater degree of concern for personal priorities,” says Bishop, who announced the preliminary findings at October’s International Astronautical Congress in Fukuoka. Bishop stresses that you cannot generalise from these results because the groups were too small and their membership was uncontrolled. It would also be absurd to compare risk-free fortnightly forays into the Utah desert to the trials of a three-year mission to Mars, when mistakes and communication breakdowns could be fatal.

The psychologists do say that such simulations can nonetheless highlight problems that might crop up. Many issues grow into confrontation within weeks, and psychologists can test their own abilities to detect conflicts in the making. They can also measure the success of interventions like psychological training, or changing the group compositions, leadership structures or environment. “If we see things that are problematical in small groups of short duration, you can bet those issues will be even more problematical for longer duration missions,” says Bishop. “Our teams to Mars had better be getting along very well indeed before we put them into a rocket for launch.”

Kanas says the most useful test of potential Martian astronauts will be to watch them in training – ideally on the ISS and possibly the moon, where NASA intends to send astronauts from 2015. “You could put the astronauts selected for Mars on the space station for a while and see how they get along in microgravity, which would model the trip out to Mars and back,” he says. “Then you could put them on the moon and totally isolate them in a foreign environment with no oxygen outside and partial gravity. That would be a good model for being on the Martian surface.” He also thinks it is vital to give the Martian astronauts and their ground controllers rigorous psychological training. Kanas has explained issues like the displacement problem on Mir to astronauts bound for the ISS. When they got back from the stay, some astronauts said this knowledge helped them to spot the problem developing and to nip it in the bud.

Kanas will test-drive more formal psychological training during future missions to the ISS. He and his colleagues will sit down with astronauts and their ground controllers prior to the launch to discuss the social and psychological pitfalls. Shortly after their arrival on the station, and half-way through the mission, a 30-minute computer session will give the astronauts a “booster shot”, reminding them what they learned. Questionnaires and post-flight interviews should reveal which aspects of the training are helpful. “This is my chance to apply directly what we’ve learned,” says Kanas. He thinks that with enough forethought given to their wellbeing, the Martian crew could be as happy as Larry. After all, happiness is relative. His studies show that on average, astronauts have lower scores for negative emotions like anxiety and depression than their colleagues back in mission control. The ground controllers in turn are more positive than the rest of us, in our offices, shops and factories. Perhaps space cadets could teach us all a thing or two.”

Volunteers line up for simulated mission to Mars
BY Kelly Young / August 2006

“More than 70 people have volunteered to be confined in a mock mission to Mars – for 520 days. It would be the longest simulation of its kind. The Institute of Medical and Biological Problems (IMBP) in Russia is undertaking the isolation study to learn more about the personal dynamics of long-duration space travel, according to Russian media reports. An actual round-trip mission to Mars could last about 30 months – about twice as long as this simulation. Five people will be eventually be selected for the study. They will spend 250 days on a simulated space trip to Mars. Then, three of the five will leave the mock spaceship for a simulated “landing on Mars” that will last 30 days. The five participants will then embark on a 240-day journey “back to Earth”. They will communicate with mission control by email. Russia and the European Space Agency have done space isolation studies before. In these studies, researchers accurately reproduce the interior environment of a spaceship and the length of time crews would spend in space.

Sex and violence
And the outcomes have not always been pleasant. In an eight-month simulation carried out by the IMBP in 2000, a Russian man twice tried to kiss a Canadian female researcher after two other Russians had gotten into a bloody brawl. As a result, locks were subsequently installed between the Russian and international crews’ compartments. Despite such conflicts, simulations of this type can lack a sense of danger, which is critical to understanding how people respond emotionally, says David Musson, a behavioural scientist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. He says working in Antarctica and in submarines may provide better models of the long-term isolation experienced in space. “An Antarctic shack doesn’t look as much like a space station,” Musson told New Scientist. “But the isolation is more real, and the danger is more real.”

Subject selection
The simulations may also lack some of the appeal that draws people to spaceflight, so researchers may end up studying a different group of people than those who would actually fly on a space mission, he says. The IMBP has tried to minimise this issue by using cosmonauts and astronaut candidates in the past. And they are giving preference in this simulation to applicants who are doctors, biologists and engineers between the ages of 25 and 50. But Musson says a long-duration space mission may take a different type of astronaut than those who go on shorter trips to space. He points out that on the International Space Station and on Russia’s former Mir space station, some of the go-getter astronauts with multiple academic degrees found themselves bored by some of the mundane tasks onboard. Musson says someone with a more laidback personality might be better suited for a long-duration mission to Mars. These would be “mystery book [readers] who are quite happy not being pushed to their mental limit every day but are extremely bright and competent”.

Cultural differences
When planning a study like this, Musson says psychologists tend to want to see people with conflicting personalities while the politicians and organisers of the project just want things to go smoothly. So far, the IMBP reports it has received applications from 16 nations. An international crew should make the simulation more realistic, as it sets up an environment for potential conflict and misunderstandings due to cultural and linguistic differences. Jack Stuster, vice president and principal scientist of Anacapa Sciences in Santa Barbara, California, US, says realistic simulations are useful for understanding the interpersonal dynamics of long-duration spaceflight. “I believe that simulations of the duration mentioned will eventually be necessary preparation for planetary exploration,” he told New Scientist.”



How Do You Get Plants To Grow On Mars? Relieve Their Anxiety / Aug. 8, 2005

“Anxiety can be a good thing. It alerts you that something may be wrong, that danger may be close. It helps initiate signals that get you ready to act. But, while an occasional bit of anxiety can save your life, constant anxiety causes great harm. The hormones that yank your body to high alert also damage your brain, your immune system and more if they flood through your body all the time. Plants don’t get anxious in the same way that humans do. But they do suffer from stress, and they deal with it in much the same way. They produce a chemical signal — superoxide (O2-) — that puts the rest of the plant on high alert. Superoxide, however, is toxic; too much of it will end up harming the plant.

This could be a problem for plants on Mars. According to the Vision for Space Exploration, humans will visit and explore Mars in the decades ahead. Inevitably, they’ll want to take plants with them. Plants provide food, oxygen, companionship and a patch of green far from home. On Mars, plants would have to tolerate conditions that usually cause them a great deal of stress — severe cold, drought, low air pressure, soils that they didn’t evolve for. But plant physiologist Wendy Boss and microbiologist Amy Grunden of North Carolina State University believe they can develop plants that can live in these conditions. Their work is supported by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts.

Stress management is key: Oddly, there are already Earth creatures that thrive in Mars-like conditions. They’re not plants, though. They’re some of Earth’s earliest life forms–ancient microbes that live at the bottom of the ocean, or deep within Arctic ice. Boss and Grunden hope to produce Mars-friendly plants by borrowing genes from these extreme-loving microbes. And the first genes they’re taking are those that will strengthen the plants’ ability to deal with stress. Ordinary plants already possess a way to detoxify superoxide, but the researchers believe that a microbe known as Pyrococcus furiosus uses one that may work better. P. furiosus lives in a superheated vent at the bottom of the ocean, but periodically it gets spewed out into cold sea water. So, unlike the detoxification pathways in plants, the ones in P. furiosus function over an astonishing 100+ degree Celsius range in temperature. That’s a swing that could match what plants experience in a greenhouse on Mars.

The researchers have already introduced a P. furiosus gene into a small, fast-growing plant known as arabidopsis. “We have our first little seedlings,” says Boss. “We’ll grow them up and collect seeds to produce a second and then a third generation.” In about one and a half to two years, they hope to have plants that each have two copies of the new genes. At that point they’ll be able to study how the genes perform: whether they produce functional enzymes, whether they do indeed help the plant survive, or whether they hurt it in some way, instead. Eventually, they hope to pluck genes from other extremophile microbes — genes that will enable the plants to withstand drought, cold, low air pressure, and so on.

The goal, of course, is not to develop plants that can merely survive Martian conditions. To be truly useful, the plants will need to thrive: to produce crops, to recycle wastes, and so on. “What you want in a greenhouse on Mars,” says Boss, “is something that will grow and be robust in a marginal environment.” In stressful conditions, notes Grunden, plants often partially shut down. They stop growing and reproducing, and instead focus their efforts on staying alive–and nothing more. By inserting microbial genes into the plants, Boss and Grunden hope to change that. “By using genes from other sources,” explains Grunden, “you’re tricking the plant, because it can’t regulate those genes the way it would regulate its own. We’re hoping to [short-circuit] the plant’s ability to shut down its own metabolism in response to stress.”

If Boss and Grunden are successful, their work could make a huge difference to humans living in marginal environments here on Earth. In many third-world countries, says Boss, “extending the crop a week or two when the drought comes could give you the final harvest you need to last through winter. If we could increase drought resistance, or cold tolerance, and extend the growing season, that could make a big difference in the lives of a lot of people.” Their project is a long-term one, emphasize the scientists. “It’ll be a year and a half before we actually have [the first gene] in a plant that we can test,” points out Grunden. It’ll be even longer before there’s a cold- and drought-loving tomato plant on Mars–or even in North Dakota. But Grunden and Boss remain convinced they will succeed. “There’s a treasure trove of extremophiles out there,” says Grunden. “So if one doesn’t work, you can just go on to the next organism that produces a slightly different variant of what you want.” Boss agrees: “Amy’s right. It is a treasure trove. And it’s just so exciting.”

Wendy Boss
email : wendy_boss [at] ncsu [dot] edu

Amy M. Grunden
email : amy_grunden [at] ncsu [dot] edu


“Plants and animals are fragile life forms. Dry them out, freeze them, expose them to high doses of radiation – they don’t do so well. But not all organisms are so picky. Many archaeans, for example, are distinguished by their ability to adapt to a variety of extreme environments. It’s in their genes. Archaeans are single-celled organisms. Under a microscope they look like bacteria. But genetically they’re as different from bacteria as you are. May of them are also extremophiles. They thrive under conditions that, until the 1970s, biologists thought were completely inhospitable to life. How do they do it? With a kind of genetic band-aid. Their DNA produces chemicals (enzymes) that repair the cell damage caused by environmental stresses.

There are plenty of harsh environments for life here on Earth. But when it comes to environmental stress, Mars has a corner on the market. The average temperature on the martian surface is about -63 C (-81 F); the atmosphere is a mere wisp of a thing, some 100 times thinner than Earth’s; the planet is dry as a bone; and the surface is bathed in damaging ultraviolet radiation. Some day humans will travel to Mars. Not only will they have to protect themselves from Mars’ harsh conditions, they’ll need to protect the food they grow, as well. The obvious solution would be to build greenhouses that provide Earth-like growing conditions. But that would require a tremendous expenditure of precious energy resources. Another solution would to modify the plants so that they grow under martian conditions.

That’s the challenge that Amy Grunden, an assistant professor of microbiology, and Wendy Boss, a botany professor, both at North Carolina State University, have set for themselves. They want to find out whether, by inserting genes from extremophile archaeans into plants, they can teach the plants to resist stress the way the archaeans do. Plant cells respond to stressors like cold or dehydration by creating a burst of superoxide, a toxic form of oxygen. Making poison may seem like an odd way to handle stress, but, explains Boss, “It’s a signaling mechanism. You get a small burst of reactive oxygen that tells the cell, Look, mount a defense, fight.'” But that can’t last forever. “Plants can lose a few cells and it doesn’t bother them,” says Boss. But if the stress – and the toxic oxygen – continues, “eventually the whole plant will die.”

Extremophile archaeans have found a way to deal with oxidative stress. They produce antioxidants. Through a series of chemical reactions, they turn superoxide into a more benign substance: water. These chemical reactions are initiated by enzymes, and the instructions for creating these enzymes are encoded in the organisms’ DNA. One organism capable of performing this feat is Pyrococcus furiosus, which makes its home in the boiling waters of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Given its super-hot environment you might think that Pyrococcus furiosus is constantly producing antioxidants. But actually, when the organism is basking in the heat of the vent, there’s no oxygen present. It’s when cells get spewed out into cold sea water, where oxygen is present, that the antioxidant action takes place. “It’s been adapted to deal with oxygen at low temperature because that’s when it sees it, when it gets in the cold sea water,” says Grunden.

Several different enzymes are required to convert superoxide to water. What Grunden and Boss have been working on is injecting the genes that produce these enzymes into plants – actually, into a clump of tobacco cells in a Petri dish. So far, they have succeeded in transferring the gene that performs the first step in the detoxifying process; it produces the enzyme that converts superoxide to the less-toxic hydrogen peroxide. The tobacco cells not only survived the “invasion,” they produced the desired enzyme. Boss and Grunden are now in the process of adding a second gene, which produces an enzyme that converts hydrogen peroxide to water.

The entire archaeal stress-reduction process involves a total of four genes. The researchers plan to work their way up to this four-gene cocktail, one gene at a time. Then they’re going to try adding a gene from a bacterium, Colwellia psychrerythraea, which thrives at temperatures below freezing. Their goal is to produce a plant that can withstand the stress of freezing temperatures. “What we’re doing with having introduced the Pyrococcus gene is laying the foundation for being able to get over the initial shock of the extreme conditions. Now what we need to do is start adapting the plant to deal with the cold temperature conditions that you see on Mars,” says Grunden. Eventually, they hope to add genes for surviving under low-pressure and low-water conditions as well. “The Mars environment represents a multiple-stress condition.”

No-one has ever tried to do this before. And it may not work. “We may find that when we put the whole pathway in, the cell just drops dead like that, because it doesn’t like all these foreign genes,” Boss says. And then there’s always the danger that these modified plants, if they got released into the wild, could have a negative impact on forest land or crops. Boss counters that their experiments are being kept strictly under lab-safe conditions. “We are not intending to put them out in the public,” she says. “Nothing is escaping.” But Boss also sees potential benefit of the work that she and Grunden are doing. Eventually, she says, their experiments may result in crops that can “grow on poor soil with low water.” Such crops might, for example. help people survive a drought. “I really hope that this in four years will have a positive impact on agriculture, maybe even human health. Who knows? Maybe we can grow something from archaea in plants that will cure some disease.… There’s just so much biology that’s untapped out there. And these archaea make some interesting compounds. Maybe we need more of them.”


“…a robotic greenhouse concept that is specially designed to help the future exploration and expanding population in the Mars. This intelligent robot can carry and take well care of a plant inside its glass container, which is functionally mounted on its four-legged pod. The robot is designed to learn the optimal process of searching for nutrients in order to keep the plant in a good condition. Moreover, it can send reports of its movements and developments to its fellow greenhouse robots through wireless communication, making it possible to learn from each other.”

Could Robotic Ants Build Homes On Mars Before We Arrive? / Oct. 27, 2008

“Recent discoveries of water and Earth-like soil on Mars have set imaginations running wild that human beings may one day colonise the Red Planet. However, the first inhabitants might not be human in form at all, but rather swarms of tiny robots. “Small robots that are able to work together could explore the planet. We now know there is water and dust so all they would need is some sort of glue to start building structures, such as homes for human scientists,” says Marc Szymanski, a robotics researcher at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany. Szymanski is part of a team of European researchers developing tiny autonomous robots that can co-operate to perform different tasks, much like termites, ants or bees forage collaboratively for food, build nests and work together for the greater good of the colony. Working in the EU-funded I-SWARM project, the team created a 100-strong posse of centimetre-scale robots and made considerable progress toward building swarms of ant-sized micro-bots. Several of the researchers have since gone on to work on creating swarms of robots that are able to reconfigure themselves and assemble autonomously into larger robots in order to perform different tasks. Their work is being continued in the Symbrion and Replicator projects that are funded under the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme.

Planet exploration and colonisation are just some of a seemingly endless range of potential applications for robots that can work together, adjusting their duties depending on the obstacles they face, changes in their environment and the swarm’s needs. “Robot swarms are particularly useful in situations where you need high redundancy. If one robot malfunctions or is damaged it does not cause the mission to fail because another robot simply steps in to fill its place,” Szymanski explains. That is not only useful in space or in deep-water environments, but also while carrying out repairs inside machinery, cleaning up pollution or even carrying out tests and applying treatments inside the human body – just some of the potential applications envisioned for miniature robotics technology.

Creating collective perception
Putting swarming robots to use in a real-world environment is still, like the vision of colonising Mars, some way off. Nonetheless, the I-SWARM team did forge ahead in building robots that come close to resembling a programmable ant. Just as ants may observe what other ants nearby are doing, follow a specific individual, or leave behind a chemical trail in order to transmit information to the colony, the I-SWARM team’s robots are able to communicate with each other and sense their environment. The result is a kind of collective perception. The robots use infrared to communicate, with each signalling another close by until the entire swarm is informed. When one encounters an obstacle, for example, it would signal others to encircle it and help move it out of the way.

A group of robots that the project team called Jasmine, which are a little bigger than a two-euro coin, use wheels to move around, while the smallest I-SWARM robots, measuring just three millimetres in length, move by vibration. The I-SWARM robots draw power from a tiny solar cell, and the Jasmine machines have a battery. “Power is a big issue. The more complex the task, the more energy is required. A robot that needs to lift something [uses] powerful motors and these need lots of energy,” Szymanski notes, pointing to one of several challenges the team have encountered. Processing power is another issue. The project had to develop special algorithms to control the millimetre-scale robots, taking into account the limited capabilities of the tiny machine’s onboard processor: just eight kilobytes of program memory and two kilobytes of RAM, around a million times less than most PCs.

Tests proved that the diminutive robots were able to interact, though the project partners were unable to meet their goal of producing a thousand of them in what would have constituted the largest swarm of the smallest autonomous robots ever created anywhere in the world. Nonetheless, Szymanski is confident that the team is close to being able to mass produce the tiny robots, which can be made much like computer chips out of flexible printed circuit boards and then folded into shape. “They’re kind of like miniature origami,” he says. Simple, mass production would ensure that the robots are relatively cheap to manufacture. Researchers would therefore not have to worry if one gets lost in the Martian soil. The I-SWARM project received funding under the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research.”

Marc Szymanski
email : szymanski [at] ira.uka [dot] de


“The US space agency needs your help to explore Mars. A Nasa website called “Be A Martian” allows users to play games while at the same time sorting through hundreds of thousands of images of the Red Planet. The number of pictures returned by spacecraft since the 1960s is now so big that scientists cannot hope to study them all by themselves. The agency believes that by engaging the public in the analysis as well, many more discoveries will be made. The new citizen-science website went live on Tuesday at http://BeAMartian.jpl.nasa.gov. The site is just the latest to use crowdsourcing as a tool to do science. Players at Be A Martian can earn points in one game by helping Nasa examine and organize the images into a more complete map of the planet. Another game gets users to count impact craters to help scientists understand better the relative age of rocks on Mars’ surface.

Nasa hopes the mix of real data and fun will also inspire the planetary scientists of tomorrow. “We really need the next generation of explorers,” says Michelle Viotti, from the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees Mars missions. “And we’re also accomplishing something important for Nasa. There’s so much data coming back from Mars. Having a wider crowd look at the data, classify it and help understand its meaning is very important.” Software giant Microsoft has been a major contributor to the technology powering Be A Martian. The website was built on the Microsoft Windows Azure Platform, using the company’s Silverlight interface and its “Dallas” service to house all the information. “The beauty of this type of experience is that it not only teaches people about Mars and the work Nasa is doing there, but it also engages a large group of people to help solve real challenges that computers cannot solve by themselves,” said Marc Mercuri from Microsoft.”


“Most of Antarctica has about 2 1/2 miles of ice covering it, and that cold, white wasteland is what most people picture when they think of the South Pole. But a series of dry valleys in Antarctica, about 4,000 kilometers square, have no ice on them at all. The moisture is sucked from the dry valleys by a rain shadow effect — winds rushing over them at speeds up to 200/mph — leaving a bizarre and fascinating landscape, which looks more like Mars than the rest of our planet. Lacking the resources (or cojones) to go there myself, these photos are by scientists and researchers who’ve been there, and are included as part of galleries on the McMurdo Dry Valleys Management Area website. The Valleys have been carved out by glaciers that have retreated, exposing valley floors and walls that typically have a top layer of boulders, gravel and pebbles, which are weathered and wind-sorted. Lower layers are largely cemented together by ice. Unusual surface deposits include marine sediments, ash, and sand dunes.”

Antarctic Research Helps Shed Light On Climate Change On Mars / Sep 01, 2008

“Researchers examining images of gullies on the flanks of craters on Mars say they formed as recently as a few hundred thousand years ago and in sites once occupied by glaciers. The features are eerily reminiscent of gullies formed in Antarctica’s mars-like McMurdo Dry Valleys. The parallels between the Martian gullies and those in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys were made using the latest high-resolution images and technology from satellites orbiting Mars to observe key details of their geological setting.

On Mars, the gullies appear to originate from cirque-like features high on pole-facing crater-interior walls, especially those within the Newton crater, 40 degrees south, examined for the study. In addition to the cirque-like features, the evidence cited for former glaciation includes bowl-shaped depressions fringed by lobate, viscous-flow deposits that extend well out onto the crater floor. “These bowl-shaped depressions reflect the former location of relatively pure glacier ice,” noted David R. Marchant, an Associate Professor of Earth Sciences at Boston University, and co-author of the study published in the August 25th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with James W. Head of Brown University, lead author, and Mikhail A. Kreslavsky of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

As conditions on Mars shifted toward reduced snowfall at this site, clean ice on the crater wall sublimated, leaving a hole, whereas ice containing appreciable rock-fall debris out on the crater floor became covered with thin rubble, preventing complete volatile loss. But even as the last glaciers vanished, minor snow likely continued to fall. “This late-stage snow could accumulate in depressions on the crater wall and, in favorable microclimate settings, melt to produce the observed gullies and fans,” said Marchant. “The results”, he said, “are exciting because they establish a spatial link between recent gullies and accumulation of glacier ice, strengthening the case for surface melt water flow in the formation of gullies on Mars”.

Other candidate processes include dry debris flows and melting of shallow ground ice, but the sequence of events demonstrating recent snowfall in Newton Crater make surface melting of snow banks an appealing choice. In fact, both Marchant and Head have observed similar processes at work in the development of modern gullies within some of the coldest and driest regions of Antarctica. The authors conclude that changes in the rate and accumulation of snow in Newton Crater are likely related to changes in the inclination of Mars’ spin access, or obliquity.

At obliquities even greater than those postulated for glaciation of Newton Crater, the same authors and colleagues postulated even larger-scale mountain glaciation near the equator, on and extending out from the Tharsis volcanoes. The evidence suggests a link between obliquity, mid-latitude glaciation, and gully formation on Mars. Rather than being a dead planet, the new data are consistent with dynamic climate change on Mars, and with episodes of alpine glaciation and melt water formation in the recent past that rival modern alpine glaciation and gully formation in the coldest and driest mountains of Antarctica.”

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