St Andrews research scientist contributes to Mars exploration programme

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A group of scientists, including a St Andrews researcher, completed a mission on Monday 29 September that simulates the human experience of surviving on Mars.

As part of a NASA-funded simulated mission to Mars, six volunteer scientists have spent the last year in a specially-constructed dome on a Hawaiian volcano to help explore the “human factors” identified as risks to success of a real mission.

At 8,200 feet above sea level, the landscape around Mauna Loa mimics Martian soil and scientists have only been allowed outside to explore it as part of “simulated spacewalks” wearing spacesuits and helmets. All food was also dried or canned, with messages to “mission control” delayed to simulate the effects of sending them from Mars

The aim of the mission, the longest of a series headed by the University of Hawaii, is to study the human and psychological factors necessary for the success of any human exploration of Mars, which would last about three years.

Kim Binsted, principal investigator of the study, told the Sunday Herald that the year-long project had produced “a huge volume of data” to be analysed in coming months.

“NASA funded this project because we need to look at how crew cohesion can effect performance,” she explained. “Astronauts tend to be very stoic people and if you ask them how they are doing, they will say, “fine”. So we have to find other ways of detecting issues.

“For example, volunteers all wear sociometric badges, like in Star Trek, and they will record things like voice volume and distance. If we detect raised voices, or if two badges never come close to each other, it might suggest there is a problem and we can think about ways to deal with that. Successful human interaction is just as important as having the right technology.”

Dr Claire Cousins, of St Andrews’ Earth and Environmental Sciences department said that, “There are two alternative ways to explore Mars that will help to overcome this difficulty.

“One way is to bring bits of Mars back to Earth via robotic sample-return missions, so we can study them back in laboratories on Earth. The second way is to send humans to Mars, so they can use more complicated equipment on Mars itself, as well as benefit from the far better decision-making capability of people vs robotic rovers.”

Dr Cousins said human exploration of the planet was expected within the next decade or so.

“Since landing on the Moon, Mars has been the next frontier in human space exploration, and we’re getting closer to achieving this every day,” she added.

“Missions that simulate what it would be like for a small crew of people to explore Mars help us understand not just how to carry out cool science, but importantly how people can cope under the psychological pressure of a very confined environment, with just the same few people to interact with.”

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