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The training for Mars has begun

Joana Rodeiro |
Six men will spend 520 days locked in a 550 cubic metre facility. This is the first training for the mission to Mars to test how they will react to long isolation.

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One Chinese man, one Italian, one Frenchman and three Russians, dressed in blue overalls, the six gave the thumbs-up sign and smiled for the cameras as loved ones and wellwishers gave them an emotional send-off before they entered the facility. Like in a real Mars mission, the crew will have to survive on limited food rations like those used by real astronauts and their only communication with the outside world will be by email, with a delay of up to 40 minutes.

The hatch will only re-open when the experiment is over or if one of the all-male participants is forced to pull out. Controversially, no women have been selected for the experiment, called Mars 500. The volunteers are aged between 27 and 38 and include a member of a real-life space programme and a civil engineer. But scientists deny the idea that the experiment is an elaborate version of television's "Big Brother". There+s no surveillance or video cameras everywhere.

The volunteers will have their days in the module at the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) divided into eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work and eight hours of leisure. A team of three will spend one month aboard a special module meant to represent the Mars landing craft, while two will also spend time exploring a reconstruction of Mars itself.

The idea is to exactly mimic the timescale of a Mars mission: 250 days for the trip to Mars, 30 days on the surface and 240 days for the return journey, totalling 520 days. Their diet will be no different to that enjoyed by real-life astronauts on the International Space Station. The crew will be given all the food at the beginning of the experiment, forcing them to ration out their supplies.

The diet will include cereals, bread or pancakes for breakfast and soup, pasta and fish or meat dishes for main meals. Unlike real-life astronauts, the packaging will not have to account for zero gravity. The ESA and the US space agency NASA have separately sketched dates in around three decades from now for a manned flight to Mars.

The project, the first full-duration simulated mission to Mars, follows a similar experiment in Moscow last year which saw six volunteers shut away for a mere 105 days.

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