ESA at the end of the world

The inhospitable conditions around Concordia make living there similar to living on another planet. The base is an ideal place to study the effects on small, multicultural teams isolated for long periods in an extreme, hostile environment.

ESA sponsors a medical research doctor in Concordia every winter to study the long-term effects of isolation. Understanding how our bodies and minds adapt to extreme environments will help to overcome the challenges of long flights aboard the International Space Station and beyond.

The Antarctic environment places inhabitants under continuous stress and poses challenges to all involved. ESA is looking at how the Concordia crew performs, in particular regarding sleep.

Lack of regular day-and-night-cycles and irregular sleeping patterns are factors to contend with in Concordia just as in spaceflight.

View from Concordia in the dark

With no sunlight, social commitments such as breakfast and dinner become important indicators of when to sleep and when to stay awake.

How does crew performance and social interaction suffer as morale sinks, sleep is disturbed and stress becomes a factor of daily life? Questionnaires to assess mood, instruments to monitor sleep patterns as well as blood sampling to chart bodily reactions are common practice for volunteers at Concordia.

What measures can be taken to keep the crew working together as a team and performing optimally? ESA is looking to answer this question in many areas, from regular exercise to ubiquitous computer aids and sleep-inducing lights. Concordia is even used to research how suitable materials are for space travel.

Aside from the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation, Concordia has another trick up its sleeve. The thin air holds less oxygen than at sea level. The crew live in a permanent state of hypoxia – lack of oxygen.

Designing space missions with lower atmospheric pressure is easier for engineers. Similar to commercial aircraft, spacecraft and planetary structures can be lighter if the internal air pressure is lowered. In addition, less time is needed to prepare physically for a spacewalk.

Concordia crewmembers are generally not adapted to living at high altitude with little oxygen. Observing how their bodies adapt gives a good indication to how astronauts will adapt to spaceflight far from Earth.

Living at Concordia is the closest thing on Earth to interplanetary exploration. Studying the effects of isolation here is preparing ESA for the real thing: a mission to Mars.

Last update: 26 March 2013

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