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ESA wants to send you to Mars*

*A simulation of Mars, anyway

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The European Space Agency (ESA) is recruiting volunteers for a simulated trip to Mars. Wannabe astronauts will have to be made of sturdy stuff: the mission will involve being locked, with five other people, in a metal tank somewhere in Moscow for 500 days.

The experiment is being organised by the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP). The idea is to find out more about the psychological and medical implications of such a long mission.

ESA scientist Marc Heppener said: "You have to have all kinds of back-up scenarios. To think all of that through is really difficult. We think doing a full simulation will teach us a lot."

The "crew" will be confined to a series of metal cabins, with a total area of around 200 sqaure metres. There will be designated areas for food, science, sleeping, and so on. They will even have a smaller lander that they'll have to get into for the simulated landing on Mars.

They will also be put through all kinds of tests, including simulated emergencies. They will have a limited supply of food, and will also have to live with an increasing communications delay - up to 20 minutes each way when they arrive on "Mars".

ESA says the crew may also have to deal with real emergencies, although it doesn't say how far the experiment's managers will let things go before intervening. Only one crew member will have medical training.

ESA is still negotiating with the Russians, but says it hopes to send two crew members. It says the selections criteria are similar to those that would be applied in the case of a real mission to Mars. The physical condition criterion might be relaxed ever so slightly, however.

The space agency says it is also interested in suggestions for scientific experiments that could be included in the study.

Heppener elaborates: "We have a first draft list of the kind of science we are looking for. Such as crew composition, the influence of confinement on sleep, mood and mental health, and the effect of differences in personality, cultural background, and motivation...On the medical side, physiological adaptation to an isolated environment, stress effects on health and well-being, changes in the immune system.

"We are open to all good scientific proposals. Following a peer review we will make our selection of the best science."

ESA will formally begin its search for volunteers in June and says it hopes to have its selection complete by November. ®

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