On a northern slope of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, six scientists have isolated themselves from the rest of the world for a year. They are attempting the longest Hawaii Space Exploration and Analogue Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission ever, spending 365 days cut off from Earth as if they were on Mars. The idea is to test the psychological effects that come with the extended periods of isolation astronauts would have to endure in a Mars mission.
Why Mauna Loa? The lava fields of Manua Loa are visually similar to the landscape of Mars. “Looking out the single porthole window, all you can see are lava fields and Maunakea in the distance. Once the door is closed, and the faux airlock sealed, the silence and physical separation contribute to the ‘long way from home’ experience of our crew members,” said principal investigator Kim Binstead in a statement about a previous mission.
Binstead explains further about the behavioral aspect of the mission: “The longer each mission becomes, the better we can understand the risks of space travel. We hope that this upcoming mission will build on our current understanding of the social and psychological factors involved in long-duration space exploration.”
The six people making up the crew are four Americans (a pilot, an architect, a journalist, and a soil scientist), a German physicist, and a French astrobiologist. Each of these people have their own research to follow out, both inside and outside of the dome. They will also have to undergo everything that they would have to do while on Mars. There will be cramped living quarters with little privacy, they will have to participate in regularly scheduled spacewalks, and there will be communication delays. To make matters worse, whenever they leave the habitat they’ll have to don spacesuits.
Their habitat will feature a common area, kitchen–fully stocked with a year’s supply of food and water–a research lab, exercise room, dining facility, and one bathroom downstairs. Of course, the crew will have the internet as well; however, that connection will come with a 20-minute delay. This is the same delay astronauts will experience while on Mars.
This crew will be constantly monitored from a research center. Using a combination of cameras and body-movement trackers, the crew will be studied for cognitive, social, and emotional reactions to the ongoing environmental test. Even with the best crew, conflicts are bound to pop up.
How much does all this cost? NASA has spent $1.6 million (£1 million) on the first four HI-SEAS experiments and the project was recently awarded an additional $1.4 million (£900,000) for three future missions.