Experiment volunteers 'to walk on Mars'
A group of volunteers isolated from the outside world for eight months were Monday to step out on a mock-up of Mars, half-way through their experiment to study the effects of a Red Planet mission.
Outfitted in heavy white space suits, two volunteers from Italy and Russia were to exit their capsule and take their first steps on the red sands -- all without ever leaving a Moscow research centre.
The "space walk" is a key moment in the unprecedented experiment where six volunteers are spending 520 days in isolation to test how humans would respond to the pressures of the there-and-back voyage to Mars.
After the space walk begins at around 1000 GMT, the volunteers will plant the flags of Russia, the European Space Agency and China in a mission that Russia and Europe hopes to repeat for real by 2040.
The men's first steps will be relayed to the Russian control centre that monitors real space missions, as part of an experiment organised by the European Space Agency and Moscow's institute of biomedical problems.
The team of six men from Europe, Russia and China has been locked since June in a mock-up spaceship at the institute to test the psychological effects of an 18-month round trip in the experiment, called Mars-500.
The volunteers aged from mid-20s to late 30s, among them engineers, doctors and a physicist, are crammed into the spaceship, where living quarters measure just 20 metres (yards) long and less than four metres across.
Russian Alexander Smoleyevsky and Italian Diego Urbina will be the first to step out, after transferring Saturday to a smaller landing module and "touching down" on Mars, along with Chinese volunteer Wang Yue.
Three other volunteers, Romain Charles from France and Sukhrob Kamolov and Alexei Sitev from Russia, will remain "in orbit" in the main module.
With the world's media watching, Smoleyevsky and Urbina will don modified Russian Orlan space suits and exit the lander's airlock for the first of three space walks onto a simulated Martian surface next to their capsule.
Researchers will look at how well volunteers cope in the spacesuits, each of which weigh 32 kilograms, after the long period of reduced physical activity and isolation.
The equipment shown in photographs on the project's website even includes specially designed chairs for the spacemen to take a break.
In experiments, the volunteers will control a wheeled robot to explore the mock-up of the surface of Mars, which is covered with sand and a scattering of rocks.
For around a month, the crew will carry out scientific experiments in the environment designed to mimic that of Mars.
They will then rejoin the three colleagues who stayed "in orbit" around the Red Planet on February 27 for the long return "trip" back to earth, with the experiment due to finish with the mock landing in November.
Russia plans to send a real flight to Mars in 20-30 years, possibly in a joint effort with US space agency NASA.
© 2011 AFP