A six-astronaut crew has begun its 120-day "mission" on Mars.
They're not actually astronauts and they're not actually on Mars, but three men and three women volunteers have begun a four-month mission to investigate how they would interact and survive long-duration space exploration, such as a trip to Mars.
The crew of the Hawai»i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) is wrapping up its first week of a 120-day experiment. Crew members will live in what the University of Hawaii describes as isolation in an "extremely remote," 1,000-square-foot habitat that's 8,200 feet above sea level on Mauna Loa, one of five volcanoes that form the island of Hawaii.
The crew members, who began their NASA-funded mission on Friday, will spend the mission living in a geodesic dome, a sphere-shaped structure. If they leave the dome, they can only do so in simulated spacesuits.
"Missions like this, reduce the risk of going to Mars," said Kim Binsted, the principal investigator on the HI-SEAS project, in a statement. "By practicing here on Earth, rehearsing the things we need to do on a trip to Mars, we are making it possible."
NASA is focused on trying to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. While contracting out work to ferry supplies and eventually astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station, the space agency is focused on building the heavy-lift rockets, robotics and spacecraft needed to get humans into deep space.
NASA estimates that a Mars mission, to the Red Planet and back, would take three years. The space agency needs to study how astronauts are are apt to react to each other and their confined, potentially dangerous, environment.
"They're going to be taking a whole bunch of psych tests looking at their mood, looking at how they relate to each other, looking at the cognitive skills and how they change over time, but we are also going to be measuring their performance," Binsted said.
The habitat on Mauna Loa has been built to simulate a base station on Mars. Each crew member was given a different role to play, as well as different scientific projects to work on.
For example, Tiffany Swarmer, a biologist and research assistant with the University of North Dakota's Human Spaceflight Laboratory, is experimenting with 3D-printed surgical tools in confined and extreme environments. Lucie Poulet, a research associate and Ph.D candidate at the Institute of Space Systems of the German Aerospace Center, is assigned to growing plants for consumption inside the habitat.
In February, NASA awarded $1.2 million to the HI-SEAS program to continue its work studying the human factors of long-duration space travels.
Two more missions are planned, one for eight months and the other for a full year.
An earlier Hi-SEAS mission was conducted in 2013 and focused on what astronauts would eat while on Mars.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is email@example.com.