"Mars" mission to develop electronic co-pilots for future astronauts

Mars500 mission launches today; astronauts to spend 520 days in virtual space

When astronauts onboard the international Mars500 mission being their 520-day virtual trip to Mars today, one of their primary duties will be to play some serious video games. 

Serious in that what and how they play these games will help engineers develop computerized 'electronic partners' that could travel with astronauts on future deep space missions.  The information garnered from these games is being compiled for what the European Space Agency calls 'Mission Execution Crew Assistant' (MECA), which aims to develop personalized software agents that will interact with crews on deep space missions, boosting the overall effectiveness of such human-machine teams, the ESA stated.

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Specifically the crew will participate in half-hour video game sessions on a series of network-connected laptops. Crewmen take part three-at-a-time, on a single-player game to fly a lunar lander and a multi-player game where participants cooperate to move colored trails, as well as a collaborative training system familiarizing them with various work procedures, the ESA stated. 

The results will be carefully logged and players will fill in detailed questionnaires about their responses to the games, how difficult they found them and their current emotional status.  Interaction between players via instant messaging will also be recorded, and their expressions will be captured via webcam. 

The games will be just one of the myriad experiments taking place on the Mars500 mission where a six-man crew will be sealed in an isolation facility at Moscow's Institute for Biomedical Problems for 520 days, reflecting the time a return trip to the Red Planet would require.  It is the first such first full-length simulated mission to Mars, ESA states.

The mission is to virtually fly to Mars in 250 days, divide in two groups, land on and explore the red planet for 30 days and return to Earth in 230 days, in the special facility that will simulate an interplanetary spacecraft, lander and Martian terrain, ESA states.   

The hatch of the facility will remain closed until November 2011 and the crew has to manage food, equipment, medical situations and all other material stored in the facility. Only electricity, water and some air will be fed into the compartments from outside, according to the ESA. 

The crew will live and work like astronauts on the International Space Station, with maintenance work, scientific experiments and daily exercise. They will follow a seven-day week, with two days off, except when special and emergency situations are simulated.

According to the ESA, the facility is not a spacecraft, but it uses many systems that will be used in some form when developing a real spacecraft for a Mars mission. Testing these in realistic conditions is important. The crew has been trained to repair every single bolt of their 'craft' and outside help will be given only in extreme situations, according to the ESA. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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