It is almost certain that humans will set foot on Mars within our lifetimes. If the modern-day space race between private companies and nations continues, it is not out of the question that we will see a long-term human presence on either the Moon or Mars in that time frame as well, an incredible yet insane concept.
But – and this is a big but – researchers have no idea how a team of astronauts separated from home by nearly 380 million kilometers (236 million miles) would fare in such a scenario. Would they be able to maintain constant communication with Earth and work flawlessly as a team? Or would they devolve into anarchy, cutting off communication with their superiors and establishing an autonomous colony? Russian researchers hope to find out before spending billions on the real thing by putting a group of people in a Mars colonization simulation.
Project SIRIUS (Scientific International Research In Unique Terrestrial Station – yes, they went out of their way to make the acronym cool) is an attempt to understand astronauts’ psychology during long space flights. The results were recently published in Frontiers in Physiology. Seventeen and 120-day isolation experiments were conducted in 2017 and 2019, respectively, to simulate a team isolated in an extraterrestrial environment.
The results confirmed their fears: the delay in communication due to distance, combined with the extended period away from Mother Earth, caused the astronauts to become detached from mission control and almost autonomous.
Mark Watney would be proud: the crew takes care of the plants grown in the pods. Image credit: SIRIUS Project – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Previous simulations suggested that once the astronauts embarked on their journey, they would begin to disconnect from mission control, reducing the number of situations on which they would report. To confirm the results of previous simulations, namely the Mars-500 missions, the researchers carried out the two isolations using a mixed-gender, international crew. The missions were designed to assess how well participants communicated with mission control and collaborated to form a successful colony.
They began with a take-off procedure before landing in an inhospitable environment within the training facility’s specialized area. The crew were then locked away in pods together, given minimal rations and supplies, and subjected to the full isolation of the real deal.
The results of the experiments suggested a number of conclusions, some of which were positive, while others were more problematic. At the halfway point of the simulation, which involved the Mars landing, the crew actually increased their communication with the mission control center (MCC), but then became detached, reducing the volume of communication with MCC. They became less reliant on MCC recommendations as they adapted to their mission, becoming more autonomous.
THE CREW ARE PLACED IN ISOLATED PODS. IMAGE CREDIT: PROJECT SIRIUS – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
While it is encouraging that the crew was able to take matters into their own hands and live autonomously, the crew’s disconnect from MCC is concerning.
“The negative side is that the mission control loses the possibility to understand the needs and problems of the crew, which consequently hinders mission control’s ability to provide support,” said co-author Dmitry Shved of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Moscow Aviation Institute, in a statement to CNET.
There was also an intriguing relationship between male and female crew members. Similarly to previous experiments, the women reported problems to the MCC more frequently and expressed their support, while their communication styles were more emotional. Men, on the other hand, were less likely to report to MCC. Surprisingly, by the end of the simulation, both men and women had adapted to each other’s communication styles, forming a similar level of emotion and communication regularity.
Of course, because only 12 people participated in the simulations, it’s possible that differences between groups and individuals are due to individual differences, so generalizations can’t be made until more research is done.
Meanwhile, another Project SIRIUS experiment, involving an 8-month isolation, has begun on November 4th.