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UPDATED: June 18, 2010 NO. 25 JUNE 24, 2010
Simulated Mission
A Chinese astronaut trainer is selected for an endurance trial to prepare humans for a real landing on the Red Planet

SEE YOU IN A WHILE: In Moscow, Chinese volunteer Wang Yue waves goodbye to crowds seeing off members of a simulated Mars mission on June 3 (ZHANG JINHAI)

On June 3, 27-year-old Chinese astronaut trainer Wang Yue walked into a mock spaceship at a Moscow research institute with five other foreign space enthusiasts in an unprecedented simulation of a manned mission to Mars.

The Mars-500 project, a joint experiment by Russia, the European Space Agency and China, began when hatches of the mock Mars spacecraft were shut at Russia's Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow. Three Russians, one French, one Italian and one Chinese volunteer make up the experiment's six-man crew.

During the next 520 days, the all-male international crew is supposed to cope with the isolation and discomfort of living in a narrow space and eating canned food as real-life astronauts. They will come out in November 2011. The special module is equipped with a simulated Mars landscape, Mars base and landing vehicle to make the experience as real as possible. The duration of the project aims to mimic the timeline of a Mars mission, 250 days for the trip to Mars, 30 days on the surface and 240 days for the return journey.

The six men are going to make history for breaking the record for the longest single space mission. And longer missions will be needed if the humans hope to send explorers to Mars.

"After completing so many space programs and building several international space stations, landing on Mars is very likely to be mankind's next goal in space exploration," said Li Yinghui, a senior Chinese astronaut system designer and the chief engineer for all Chinese studies attached to the Mars-500 project. In all, 106 experiments are planned for the Mars-500 crew during their mission.

Compared with other planets in the solar system, Mars' less hostile conditions have made it more likely to become mankind's next stop in space exploration, said Wang Sichao, a senior research fellow with the Nanjing-based Purple Mountain Observatory in Jiangsu Province. He said Venus, whose surface temperature is up to 400 degrees Celsius and atmospheric pressure is 90 times that of the Earth, is more difficult for man to land than Mars. The highest temperature on Mars is above 0 degree Celsius and a small quantity of water has been found there.

At a seminar of the Chinese Academy of Engineering on June 8, academician Zhang Yanzhong said China's pace exploration activities will focus on planets within the solar system, including Mars, Mercury and Venus by 2030.

"This project will make astronauts fully prepared for longer missions in the future and the technical preparation during the process is indispensable for deep space exploration for all countries," said Bai Yanqiang, head of the Chinese experiments attached to the Mars-500 project.

At a press conference on the June 9, Alexander Rodin, the representative in China for the Russian Federal Space Agency, called the project "a wonderful example of international cooperation in space exploration."

Rodin said Russia is in talks with China to cooperate on future programs and one potential partnership program is remote sensing on the Earth to create a warning system for natural disasters.

The six men were selected from thousands of applicants from around the world and have to meet strict health, personality and skill and ability requirements. The successful candidates are also required to be open to different cultures. They must pass physical and psychological tests that are closely related to the mission, such as adapting to a new environment and being able to perform tasks under demanding conditions of limited space, strong cosmic radiation and the lack of magnetic field.

"If they feel physically unable to complete the mission, they can quit anytime," said Rodin.

Recorded natural sounds have been included in the mission supplies to help alleviate crew members' anxiety and loneliness. Wang has brought on board videos featuring natural landscape from China and Chinese traditional culture, his favorite books, DVDs and musical instruments. "I look forward to playing in a mini-international concert during the mission," said Wang.

Wang also plans to improve his English and Russian during this simulated trip and to teach his teammates Chinese paper cutting and the Chinese language.

Of the 106 study projects to be conducted during the mission are three from China. One experiment is on the effects of traditional Chinese medicine on keeping astronauts healthy and another one is on the change of physiological rhythm in astronauts under stress and in a confined space. "Traditional Chinese medicine has proved effective in keeping astronauts in excellent physical conditions and our Russian colleagues have expressed intense interest in it," said Li Yongzhi, who leads the medical staff for Chinese astronauts.

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