A group of NASA-funded researchers is set to enter an isolated dome on a remote Hawaii volcano to study human behavior in long-term space exploration, including a planned voyage to Mars.
The six scientists enter their new home Thursday on the Big Island’s Mauna Loa volcano for an eight-month stay.
The team will have no physical contact with people in the outside world and will work with a 20-minute delay in communications, the time it would take for an email to reach Earth from Mars.
The study will examine the mental and emotional difficulties associated with living in isolated and confined conditions for a long time.
The project is designed to help the U.S. space agency send humans on long space voyages including to Mars by the 2030s.
“We’re hoping to figure out how best to select individual astronauts, how to compose a crew and how to support that crew on long-duration space missions,” principal investigator Kim Binsted, a University of Hawaii science professor.
Leading the crew is mission commander James Bevington, a freelance space scientist who has acted as a visiting researcher for the International Space University. The other team members include engineers, a computer scientist, a doctoral candidate and a biomedical expert.
They were selected from a group of 700 applicants who went through cognitive and personality tests as well as extensive interviews.
The researchers will wear devices around their necks that measure their moods and how close they are to other team members. They’ll also use virtual-reality devices to simulate familiar and comforting surroundings they wouldn’t have access to while living on Mars.
They will wear spacesuits whenever they leave the compound to conduct daily tasks including geological and mapping studies. The crew will eat mostly freeze-dried foods; some canned food and lightweight snacks also will be brought in.
Occasional resupply deliveries will be recovered with a robot to maintain the crew’s isolation. The 1,200-square-foot simulated space home has small sleeping quarters for each member as well as a kitchen, laboratory and bathroom.
The latest Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, mission is the third round of research funded by NASA, which has dedicated more than $2 million to the Hawaii project.
“Mars is one of the best places in the solar system to look for signs of past or current life,” said Binsted, adding that would be the most significant scientific discovery “of all time.”
Also, man-made disasters or natural catastrophes such as an asteroid hit could force a human exodus from Earth, she said. “Right now, all of our eggs for life are in one basket. I think it’s a good overall strategy for us as a species to spread out further.”