Practice, practice, practice - NASA's Spirit Mars Rover has discovered strange blue rocks on the surface of Mars which contain high concentrations of carbonate--evidence that the planet once had a wet, non-acidic environment that may have been favorable for life. Meanwhile, an international crew has locked themselves away in a module with no windows and only e-mail contact with the outside world for 18 months, in preparation for a potential journey there so they can see if any life still exists there. They even have a room that simulates the surface of Mars, so they can practice leaving their ship!
The JPL website (JPL is the company which builds the rockets that will send us to Mars eventually) quotes astronomer Steve Squyres as saying, "A substantial carbonate deposit in a Mars outcrop tells us that conditions that could have been quite favorable for life were present at one time in that place." Two rovers first landed on Mars 6 years ago for missions that were originally planned to last 3 months. Spirit has been out of communication since March 22 and is in a low-power hibernation during the Martian winter, but Opportunity is slowly making its way toward a large crater the NASA wants to investigate.
Will there be a manned mission to Mars anytime soon? No matter when it happens, a 6 man international crew will be ready, because they've shut themselves up in an isolation chamber in Moscow for a simulated 520 day mission.
The crew has a mission schedule full of more than 90 experiments and realistic scenarios, including emergency situations, 20-minute communications delays and even a trip to a simulated Martian surface. The facility consists of interconnected modules serving as the mock interplanetary spaceship, including medical and scientific research areas, living quarters, a kitchen, greenhouse and exercise area. The chamber also contains a Mars landing vehicle module and a Martian landscape module for simulated extravehicular activities. This is an enclosed room with a floor covered in rocks and red sand. About half-way through the mission, 3 of the crew will have to "land" on this "surface" and walk on it while dressed in heavy space suits.
Psychologist David F. Dinges expects responses ranging from sleep loss and fatigue to stress and mood changes. He says, "Extensive data from the Russian Mir Space Station, International Space Station and Apollo missions suggest that psychological and behavioral issues will be perhaps the greatest challenge humans will face when they embark on years-long missions to Mars and other locations."
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