Six crewmembers will be staying in a “small, isolated dome” near Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano for the next eight months, Space.com has reported.
The crewmembers entered the dome on January 19, marking the beginning of the fifth “mission” for the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program.
“For the next eight months, crewmembers will simulate a mission on a planetary surface similar to Mars’,” Elizabeth Howell writes for Space.com.”The simulation will include a 20-minute delay in communication, because it takes time to send messages at light speed from Earth to Mars, and they will have limited contact with the outside world — in previous missions, water was delivered every six weeks and supply ‘missions’ every few months.”
— SPACE.com (@SPACEdotcom) January 29, 2017
While staying in the dome and mission site, the crewmembers will have to abide by many of the same rules and routines that astronauts participating in a real Mars mission would be required to carry out. They will eat “shelf-stable” foods, commit to daily exercise regiments, conduct research, maintain equipment and keep track of supplies, Howell notes. If they want to go outside of the dome, they will have to gear up in spacesuits as if they were actually going to walk on Mars.
The environment around the volcano provides an ideal setting for NASA to carryout the Mars simulation.
“This is the best and most obvious place to do this research, both because of the physicality — as you can see, it looks like we’re on Mars — but also because of the range of expertise available at the University of Hawaii,” Kim Binsted, HI-SEAS principal investigator and a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said in a statement quoted by Howell.
The University of Hawaii established and maintains the HI-SEAS site, which was selected specifically for its terrain and geography, based on research on what the surface of Mars is like.
“The HI-SEAS site has Mars-like geology which allows crews to perform high-fidelity geological field work and add to the realism of the mission simulation,” the University of Hawai’i’s website for HI-SEAS reads. “The Martian regolith examined by the CheMin instrument (Blake et al. 2012) is very similar to the weathered basaltic materials found in this part of Hawaii.”
— Nautilus (@NautilusMag) January 27, 2017
Researchers at HI-SEAS also study how prolonged periods of living in isolated, close quarters with a small group of colleagues might affect mental health and stability.
“Long-duration missions in isolated, confined, and extreme (ICE) environments can lead to social withdrawal and reduced team cohesion, potentially increasing risks to individual and team behavioral health and mission performance,” the HI-SEAS webpage on the study of Effectiveness of a Shared Social Behavioral Task as a Team-Building Exercise in Isolated, Confined, and Extreme Environments ominously explains. “As with physical exercise and individual muscle, bone, and cardiovascular health, regular ‘social’ exercise in ICE environments may help build and maintain some of the behavioral processes that underlie team and mission success.”
Awareness of these potential issues led the HI-SEAS team to develop a behavioral software tool called COHESION (Capturing Objective Human Econometric Social Interactions in Organizations and Networks).
The HI-SEAS research facility is located near an abandoned quarry at an elevation of approximately 8,000 feet. There is very little vegetation or animal life in the area, and no threatened or endangered species. There also are not any sites sacred to indigenous people nearby.
The University of Hawaii maintains the HI-SEAS site, but NASA is funding the current mission and plans to fund a sixth mission in 2018. The two missions combined are expected to cost NASA roughly $1 million.
[Featured image by Handout/Getty Images]