Jetting off to Hawaii in the name of science certainly sounds appealing, but for one intrepid group, it wasn’t all beaches and barbecues. In January, six scientists and engineers traded their home comforts for a life on Mars. Or at least, the closest imitation of life on Mars without leaving the atmosphere.

The HI-SEAS project, or the ‘Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation’, is a geodesic dome perched on a Hawaiian volcano. Set on a lava field around 8000 feet above sea level, the remote habitat is surrounded by Mars-like geology. Stranding crews on the mountain, the NASA-funded project aims to find out what is needed to endure long-duration space missions, including the trip to Mars.

After eight long months in insolation, the crew of the fifth HI-SEAS mission were last month reunited with their friends and families.

Mirroring Mars

As well as the physical isolation and a geological similarity, HI-SEAS mimics the likely conditions experienced by Mars-bound travellers. Once sealed in the dome, the crew may only step outside after donning a specially designed ‘space’ suit. Even the communications mirror those in deep space, with a twenty-minute delay between the dome and the outside world. This means there can be no real-time conversations and if something goes wrong, the crew are on their own.

The project began back in 2012, with the first team embarking on a four-month mission. They analysed different dietary options and resources on long-term space missions. This included studying the nutritional and psychological impacts of living off ‘instant’ foods, versus shelf-stable alternatives. Four later missions have looked at how crews cooperate under pressure and deal with the stresses of longer missions. Together, the findings will help NASA select crew members for deep-space missions. The longest HI-SEAS mission to date ended last summer, after a full year inside the habitat.

One of the most important aspects of the studies revolves around how crews interact in close quarters. The dome itself measures just 36 feet across, with living space spread over two floors. The crew spend their days on the ground floor, where the kitchen, dining area and bathroom are located. There are also dedicated laboratory and exercise spaces. Upstairs, the habitat has space for six cabins and a second toilet. For the more recent missions, an additional workspace has been created from a converted shipping container and connected to the dome.

Overcoming the challenges

Laura Lark, an IT specialist on the recently returned HI-SEAS V mission, seemed positive about the mission’s ongoing success. “Long-term space travel is absolutely possible,” she said. “There are certainly human factors to be figured out, that’s part of what HI-SEAS is for. But I think that overcoming those challenges is just a matter of effort. We are absolutely capable of it.”

Her mission tested crewmates particularly on their abilities to maintain bonds under varying levels of autonomy. For their first months in isolation, the team were regularly instructed by mission control before being left to their own devices. Eight weeks before ‘landing’, mission control took charge once again, reducing the crew’s autonomy.

A second eight-month simulation will begin in January 2018.


Image Credit: University of Hawai‘i News

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