Moscow 'Mars mission' ends after 520 days
Six volunteers were to emerge from isolation Friday after spending almost one-and-a-half-years locked away from the world at a Russian research centre to test the effects on humans of a flight to Mars.
The unprecedented experiment has simulated the duration and isolation of a return journey to the Red Planet, even including "walks" on a replica of the Martian surface and 20-minute time gaps in communication with outside.
Yet ever since the multi-national crew were first locked up back on June 3, 2010 their module has stayed firmly rooted to the earth in a car park outside the Moscow research facility.
Researchers at Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems (IMBP) will open the hatch of the module that has been the volunteers' home for 520 days at 1000 GMT and they will step out for the first time in 18 months.
The crew of one Chinese, one Italian, one Frenchman and three Russians are to be met by family and friends as well as high-ranking guests, including the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos Vladimir Popovkin.
While there were some titters when the volunteers donned space suits for their "space walk" in a glorified sandpit at the halfway point, scientists insist the experiment was vital preparation for an eventual manned trip to Mars.
"Yes, the crew can survive the inevitable isolation that is for a mission to Mars and back. Psychologically, we can do it," said Patrik Sundblad, the human life sciences specialist at the European Space Agency.
He said that the crew had performed well despite occasional ups and downs. "August was the mental low point: it was the most monotonous phase of the mission."
However the six will not immediately be able to enjoy the pleasures of normal life as they will be taken away for a barrage of tests firstly at the IMBP and then the clinic of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Controversially, the experiment did not include a woman, with researchers clearly wanting to avoid it degenerating into a scientific version of television's sexual tension-filled "Big Brother".
Media have not been invited to observe the volunteers emerging from their capsule for fear that the crew could be vulnerable to Moscow's late autumn cold and flu viruses after such a long period without contact with anyone else.
However they are due to reveal how they managed to cope with the hardships at a news conference next week. Mission captain Alexei Sityov had entered the capsule just two weeks after getting married.
"Spending 520 days with people from different groups, different nationalities, different mentalities is not simple at all. They have behaved very worthily," Mark Belakovsky, the project's deputy director told AFP.
Each of the participants is receiving 3 million rubles (around $100,000) for their work, the Interfax news agency quoted the head of the project Boris Morukov as saying.
Initially, the Russians were to receive less but the sum was increased once ESA revealed how much its two volunteers were receiving, Interfax said.
ESA and the US space agency NASA have separately sketched dates in around three decades from now for a manned flight to Mars.
© 2011 AFP