For the past 17 months, researchers with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) collected data to evaluate the impact of prolonged operational confinement on the sleep, performance, and mood of six crew members during a Mars mission simulation in Moscow. The 520-day simulation, which concluded Nov. 4, was conducted by the State Scientific Center of the Russian Federation – Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
As the only U.S. organization participating in the simulation, NSBRI monitored the multi-national crew’s rest-activity patterns, performance and psychological responses to determine the extent to which sleep loss, fatigue, stress, mood changes and conflicts occurred during the mission. The 520-day simulation began June 3, 2010, when the hatches were closed to the IBMP spacecraft-like confinement facility. The simulated mission had more than 90 experiments and realistic scenarios, including emergency situations, 20-minute communications delays and a trip to a simulated Martian surface. The mission was broken into three phases: 250 days for the trip to Mars, 30 days on the surface and 240 days for the return to Earth.
NSBRI Neurobehavioral and Psychosocial Factors Team Leader Dr. David Dinges is the principal investigator for the U.S. project. Dinges, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, said the data collected during the simulation could provide valuable insight for future long-duration space missions.
"The data from this Mars mission simulation begins to tell us whether some of the things that might be problems for humans going into space – prolonged confinement, isolation from family, etc. – can be managed or mitigated during extended missions beyond low-Earth orbit," Dinges said. "The data collected can also tell us how those factors impact a multi-national crew. We really need information from these kinds of studies because these space mission simulations are closer to the real thing than other analogs."
The 520-day Mars Mission, conducted by IBMP under the auspices of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), the Russian Academy of Sciences, and in cooperation with the European Space Agency, is the final phase of the Russian Mars 500 program. Previous phases included a 14-day test of the facility and a 105-day isolation study involving a six-member international crew in 2009.
Preliminary reports from the 520-day simulation indicate the researchers collected approximately 4.5 million minutes of data from the crew members who wore actiwatches that recorded their movements. The actiwatch data will give an objective measurement of sleep-wake patterns. Other data will allow scientists to determine moods, depression, fatigue, stress and the effects of conflicts.
According to Dinges, logistics and the collection of high-quality data were the most challenging part of the investigation. Those responsibilities belonged to NSBRI’s International Liaison Dr. Igor Savelev, who communicated with the crew during the simulation.
"Much like a real mission, the crew is trained before launch, and any in-flight problems with a research project must be handled by the crew with the assistance of ground personnel," Savelev said. "The NSBRI project was complicated, but due to the preparations by the researchers and the in-flight efforts of the crew, we were able to collect more than 98 percent of the target data."
One of the unique aspects of the 520-day mission simulation was the international cooperation. "In addition to providing valuable scientific data about the neurobehavioral and psychosocial issues facing humans during an extended exploration mission, this simulation gives the participating countries more experience with international collaboration," said Dr. Jeffrey Sutton, NSBRI director. "Our counterparts at IBMP are to be commended for their efforts in sponsoring this scientific study that will benefit the world’s human spaceflight endeavors."
For more information about NSBRI’s participation in the MARS 500 program, please visit http://www.nsbri.org/SCIENCE-and-TECHNOLOGY/Neurobehavioral-and-Psychosocial-Factors/Mars-500/.
NSBRI is a consortium of institutions studying the health risks related to long-duration spaceflight and developing the medical technologies needed for long missions. NSBRI’s science, technology and education projects take place at more than 60 institutions across the United States. In addition to protecting astronaut health, NSBRI research has benefits for health care on Earth. For more information about NSBRI, please visit www.nsbri.org.