Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sleep monitored in 520-day mock Mars mission

Six men parted ways with their families and the comforts of earth to embark on a landmark journey to the red planet Thursday morning. The mission will last exactly 520 days, enough time to reach Mars, spend a month on the planets surface, and return home to Earth. At its closest point in orbit, the planets are about 55 million kilometers apart. However the space capsule’s crew will only move a couple hundred feet.

The mission, in reality, is a great experiment in confinement taking place inside a facility near Moscow. The space vessels, the living quarters and the red planet itself are all fakes.

It's an exercise in space madness, borrowing the term from the old sci-fi B-movies. The entire time a team of scientists will be monitoring their every move and measuring their mental and physiological responses.

One of the signs scientists will closely watch is the crews sleeping patterns. The test subjects are wearing a wrist Actiwatch.

As previously reported on this blog, sleeping in space is not always easy. Astronauts on average sleep only 6.5 hours per day. The sleep quality is generally poor, with less time spent in slow-wave sleep. After three months the sleep problems are likely to worsen.

The light-dark cycle is highly variable. On normal missions near Earth the sun rises every 90 minutes. Similar challenges are likely apparent for interplanetary travel.

Then there is the issue of keeping a sleep schedule in tune with mission control. Presently astronauts use bright lights in their crew quarters during waking hours to regulate their sleep-wake cycle.

The Mars mission looks to shape the future of human space travel, despite being only a simulation. In the next 520 days we’ll learn if the human body and psyche is capable of making long journeys to new worlds.
Image Courtesy NASA

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