Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/02/14/mars500_landing/

Wooden spaceship descends into Moscow sandpit

Suited Martian sim-naut invaders emerge

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 14th February 2011 14:52 GMT

Joyous news from the European Space Agency today, which reports that it has successfully landed three astronauts on Mars. Sadly this is only simulated Mars: the three spacesuited pioneers are at present exploring a large indoor sandpit, having spent the previous eight months inside a wood-panelled simulator pretending they were in transit to the red planet.

Mars500 simnaut in training. Credit: ESA

Watch out for the Martians emerging from that secret door behind you

On 8 February, three of the six human guinea pigs confined within the Mars500 spacecraft simulator complex at Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems transferred into the "lander" module, which then made a four-day simulated descent to the surface of the Gusev crater - which on the real Mars is home to NASA's crawler robot Spirit, which apparently finally expired during the recent Martian winter after becoming bogged in a sand trap.

This morning the three Moscow sim-nauts in the "lander" donned Russian-made Orlan spacesuits and stepped out at last into the reddish sand carefully prepared for them in an upstairs room of the Mars500 complex.

“Today, looking at this red landscape, I can feel how inspiring it will be to look through the eyes of the first human to step foot on Mars," said Diego Urbina of Italy as he stepped into the sandpit. “I salute all the explorers of tomorrow and wish them godspeed.”

Cabin life aboard the wooden spaceship

Urbina was joined by Russia's Alexandr Smoleevskiy on the initial "Marswalk", which lasted an hour and 12 minutes. The next walk will see Smoleevskiy and Wang Ye of China leave Urbina behind in the lander; the final walk will be carried out by the original duo on 22 February.

Diego Urbina relaxing in the Mars500 facility. Credit: ESA

Life inside the wooden spaceship of tomorrow.

Meanwhile the men's comrades Romain Charles, Alexey Sitev and Sukhrob Kamolov remain "in orbit" downstairs in the main spaceship simulator unit. Following pretend blastoff on 23 February, the "Marswalker" group will simulate an orbital rendezvous and docking before being allowed back into the main complex on 27 February. Then the crew will load all their rubbish into the "lander" and shut the door on it: the ESA says that it would then be discarded on a real flight.

Another eight-month "interplanetary" odyssey will follow, which according to the space agency may be the toughest bit of the project:

The most difficult but the most interesting part of this psychological study of long flights is still ahead: the crew is now faced with another monotonous ‘interplanetary cruise’ without a highlight like the Mars landing to look forward to.

That said, the 20-minute latency which has been gradually introduced into all comms from inside to outside the Mars500 complex will then be decreasing, and it could be that the prospect of getting out will be at least as attractive as that of having a bimble about in an indoor sandpit has been.

“The crew is highly motivated and performing very well,” comments Jennifer Ngo-Anh, ESA's Mars500 honcho.

“The science community is very pleased with the quality of the material but, as this is a long experiment, we have to wait for the results until their ‘arrival’ at Earth. “At this point, everything looks very good.”

Much more on Mars500 here. ®