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Russia preparing for human journey to Mars

The preliminary project, entitled Mars 500, will not be taking place light years away from earth, but in Polezhaevskaya, a suburb of northern Moscow.

world Updated: Aug 09, 2007 13:14 IST

Nearly 40 years after man first walked on the moon, the Russians have started a programme that hopes to pave the way for a human journey to Mars.

The preliminary project, entitled Mars 500, will not be taking place light years away from earth, but in Polezhaevskaya, a suburb of northern Moscow.

In what at first sounds rather like a reality television programme, six volunteers will spend nearly 18 months in a sealed container specifically built to simulate conditions of a voyage to Mars.

According to Mark Belakovskiy, head of the Mars 500 project at the Institute of Biomedical Problems at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the facility is expected to be completed by the end of the year and will comprise five hermetic chambers with a total area of 550 cubic meters.

One chamber will become living quarters for the six crew, one a common room, one will be reserved for experiments, and one will be a storeroom for equipment and provisions. The final room will simulate Martian terrain itself.

"There will be three different stages of the project," said Belakovskiy. "The first stage will start at the end of November, and will be a two-week project to test the technical specifications. Then a pilot experiment will be carried out for 105 days at the beginning of next year, using six people who may or may not be the same as those who took part in the first experiment."

The final stage of the project will last for 520 days, and is expected to start at the end of 2008.

During this time, a series of clinical, biomedical, immunological, biological and psychological tests will be carried out. Much of the experiment is designed to assess how people will cope with being confined to such a small space for long periods of time.

The scientific programme is still being developed, and applications are being taken from different institutions who want to carry out their own experiments.

More than 60 suggestions for experiments have been received from different institutions in Russia, and it is also expected that an agreement will be signed with the European Space Agency to allow it to take part in the experiments as well.

As it is, the European Space Agency is already participating in the project, selecting two of the six volunteers for each of the experiments.

"We want the teams of six to be international," said Belakovskiy. "The gender ratio has not been decided yet - gender is not the most important thing - the most important things are professionalism and health."

The project is particularly interested in receiving applications from doctors, engineers and biologists. So far, the institute has received more than 200 applications from 26 countries, while the application process will remain open for another six months at least.

It is expected that the chosen participants, who will have to undergo six months of training before entering the simulation spaceship, will be paid roughly 14,000 Euro for the 105-day "voyage" and 55,000 Euro for the longer, 520-day trip.

And it's not just humans who are being used to ascertain what kind of toll the journey to Mars will take.

At the Institute of Medical Primatology near Adler in southern Russia, experiments are already being undertaken on monkeys as part of a joint project.

"We can find out a lot from people, but we can't model the negative consequences of flight on them," said Boris Lapin, the director of the institute.

The journey to Mars will differ from orbiting earth, said Lapin, because even at 300 kilometers into orbit, there is still protection from the earth's magnetic field.

"When they go further, there's nothing to defend them. So we need to find out what an astronaut can take during this flight."

As such, a group of lucky monkeys is receiving a dose of atmospheric pressure each day similar to what potential cosmonauts will receive. "Every two or three months, the dose will be increased to simulate a solar flare," said Lapin.

For now, the experiments are at a very early stage. But there's no doubt that everyone wants to get to Mars first.