For the next year, four volunteer NASA crew members will be isolated and sealed off from the rest of the world, living and working inside a man-made sandbox simulating the surface of Mars – all to advance space exploration and scientific research.
NASA said the analog mission will help the US space agency prepare for the eventual human exploration of Mars by real astronauts as part of NASA’s Artemis lunar program.
The 378-day simulated mission began June 25th at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The four-person crew ingress will be isolated for the duration inside the Mars Dune Alpha, a ground-based, 1,700-square-foot habitat run by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) agency.
The Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog mission, otherwise known as CHAPEA, is the first of three planned one-year Mars surface simulations to take place over the next few years.
Researchers will simulate the challenges and workload of a human mission to Mars, including resource limitations, equipment failures, communication delays, and other environmental stressors, according to NASA.
"We’re really looking at how the crew performance and health changes based on realistic Mars restrictions and lifestyle of the crew members," said Raina MacLeod, CHAPEA’s deputy project manager at Johnson.
The 3D-printed habitat includes four individual private living quarters, a kitchen, two bathrooms, and dedicated areas for recreation and fitness.
The habitat also includes areas for technical and medical work, as well as for crop growth activities.
To make the habitat as Mars-realistic as possible – and to obtain the most accurate data on the crew – a 1,200-square-foot sandbox was created and filled with red sand to simulate the Martian landscape.
According to MacLeod, the crew will be tasked with three main categories: "geology, building, and exploration."
Mars has about a third of the gravity Earth does, which will present unique challenges for eventual human missions on the Red Planet, NASA said.
"The simulation will allow us to collect cognitive and physical performance data to give us more insight into the potential impacts of long-duration missions to Mars on crew health and performance," said CHAPEA principal investigator Grace Douglas.
During the mission, the crew will also be conducting simulated spacewalks, aka "Marswalks," and provide data on a variety of factors, including behavioral health.
Some of these simulated Marswalks will take place outside of the habitat using virtual reality technology and robotics operations.
The sandbox will contain treadmills for the virtual reality walks and other equipment to facilitate longer traverses.
"We thought through a few different types of spacewalks that we thought would be realistic to what astronauts would do on the surface of Mars," MacLeod said.
Space exploration for humanity
NASA is hoping the CHAPEA mission will provide researchers with the data needed to eventually send live astronauts to Mars in support of its Artemis program.
The goal of Artemis is to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon in preparation for those future expeditions to the Red Planet, according to the agency.
"Ultimately, this information will help NASA make informed decisions to design and plan for a successful human mission to Mars," Douglas said.
Last year, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission successfully sent an uncrewed spacecraft to orbit the Moon. Next, scheduled for November 2024, the Artemis 2 mission will send a four-person crew into space to attempt a 10-day trip around the Moon.
In 2025, NASA plans to send that same Artemis crew on its third mission – to complete a crewed Moon landing.
If successful, it will mark the first human lunar landing since 1972 and will also land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon.
Meantime, the CHAPEA volunteer crew members (and two backup crew) were selected from the general public through NASA’s open application process, which began in 2021.
Applicants were expected to be qualified experts in one of the STEM fields and also be between 30 to 55 years old to be considered.
The CHAPEA crew includes a female commander/research scientist, a male flight engineer, a male emergency medical physician, and a female US Navy microbiologist.
NASA’s next two Mars simulation missions are planned for 2025 and 2026.
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