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The happy campers of the Mars500 mission

Nobody sealed into an oversized tin can should smile that much, but apparently these six astronaut role players really, really love their jobs.

Cyrille Fournier and EEG wiring
Mars500 participant Cyrille Fournier gets wired up for EEG monitoring of his sleep patterns. ESA

Prolonged enclosure in any indoor space, especially a small one, generally produces a condition known as cabin fever--you get cranky and restless and even a bit claustrophobic. Playing board games and tending to the houseplants gets old fast.

So what exactly are they pumping into the air in the several oversized tin cans of the Mars500 project to make the astronaut role players grin so much and so broadly? The six men are locked into a 200-square-meter space to simulate the conditions of a trip to Mars and back, and they're already three weeks into a 105-day stay. (Later this year, a 520-day sojourn will begin.)

Apparently, they really, really love their work. Or at least that's what the European Space Agency really, really wants us to believe, since all we know of the Mars500 crew's activities are what we see in the press release photos and officially posted diary entries. I mean, I've seen my share of publicity photos, but come on.

No, no, I know. I don't really expect anyone to turn into Jack Nicholson in "The Shining." But do the diary notes have to be so chirpy, and the photos so deliriously happy?

Anyway, in the latest installment from Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems, where the Mars500 research facility is located, we find out that the crew members have been honing their poker skills, making improvised drums out of plastic containers, and celebrating Orthodox Easter with some chocolate eggs. They also got in their weekly 15 minutes per person in the 1-square-meter sauna.

Oh, yes, and they're working on their scientific experiments, too. A central goal of the Mars500 project is to get a reading on things like sleep patterns and mood swings, which certainly will be legitimate concerns for long space voyages.

Earlier this week, participant Oliver Knickel reported on the results of the first "electronic nose" experiment, in which a device sucks in air, and internal filters capture traces of bacteria and fungi. "Fortunately," he writes, "we have not found any dangerous pathogens so far."

The study of sleep patterns, meanwhile, has had a hiccup. In doing their first recording of brainwaves during sleep, the group had "quite a surprise" to find that the EEG machine had come unplugged sometime during the night--two nights running. "Since then we are looking for the ghost of Cyrille's quarters who wants to accompany us on our simulated journey to Mars," Knickel writes.

A ghost, eh? With any luck, the crew has packed a few Stephen King novels after all and the Mars500 narrative will get just that much more interesting.

Oliver Knickel and electronic nose
The blue device in the hands of Mars500 crewmember Oliver Knickel is an electronic nose, in search of bacteria and fungi. ESA