As we prepare to explore and venture further afield in our Solar System, mission designers need ways to train, prepare and test techniques and equipment without the expense of going to space. ESA works with many partners to simulate aspects of spaceflight around the world.
Each location or test campaign focuses on one or more aspects of a trip outside Earth’s atmosphere. From isolation studies to recreating weightlessness in bed or investigating geological characteristics on volcanic islands and testing rovers in harsh conditions – the varied geography of Earth and inventiveness of scientists allows space agencies to practise and observe before venturing on the real thing.
From training astronauts to improving rovers in the field, the more prepared we are for operating in the harsh environment in space the better – there is usually no second chance in spaceflight. Everything has to work perfectly from the start.
An example of simulated missions was conducted by ESA and Russian partners in 2011. A 520-day simulated mission to Mars locked six people from Russia, Europe and China in a habitat for the same time it would take to complete a round-trip to the Red Planet.
Aside from not leaving our planet, no luxuries were granted the intrepid ‘marsonauts’: no fresh food for over a year and as they travelled further from home, communication was delayed as if they were 100 000 km from their families.
Sleeping patterns changed, morale varied throughout the months and researchers learnt many aspects of living in confined quarters for long periods.
For mission directors it is important to work out how astronauts rest so they can be ready for action at key moments. Astronauts need to be alert and performing at their best for landing on Mars. At what time of day should mission-critical moments be planned?
A better understanding of these aspects is essential for development of the elements necessary for an exploration mission.
More about the Mars500 project on the dedicated part of the ESA website.