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Mars500: Home sweet isolation chamber (photos)

Six men have sequestered themselves in an assemblage of four tightly proportioned, hermetically sealed modules, where they'll remain till November 2011, and pretend they're flying to Mars and back.

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Sukhrob Kamolov

This cheery fellow is Sukhrob Kamolov. He's a Russian crewmember in the Mars500 project, a landlocked simulation of a flight to Mars and back.

In June, he and five other men sequestered themselves in an assemblage of four tightly proportioned, hermetically sealed modules, where they'll remain till November 2011. While they won't have to worry about being hit by any interplanetary debris or being sent off-course by a math error deep in the telemetry system, they'll otherwise be conducting themselves as if isolated far from Earth in very close quarters. In other words, that smile will surely be tested.

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Romain Charles

Romain Charles, a crewmember from France, navigates from one module to another through an interconnecting tunnel. The Mars500 facility is located in Moscow, where the project is run by Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems, with "extensive participation" by the European Space Agency, as ESA puts it.

The Russian space program is no stranger to long-lasting sojourns outside Earth's atmosphere: cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, for instance, holds the record for the longest continuous stay in space, having holed up in the Mir space station for 437 days from January 1994 to March 1995. And countryman Sergei Krikalev has piled up more cumulative time in space than any other person: 803 days.

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Mars500 hatch

But a mission to Mars would be different in a number of significant ways. It would break free of the relatively cozy closeness to home enjoyed by the International Space Station and other orbital facilities. There would be neither resupply nor visitors, in contrast with the ISS, where space shuttles and other vessels dock from time to time. Real-time communications (or nearly so) with mission control would give way to long lag times.

And there will likely be no wood paneling, in contrast with the interior design of the Mars500 modules.

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Mars500 floor plan

This close-up taken from the preceding photo (from just above and to the left of the open hatch door) shows the layout of the Mars500 modules. Sorry, you're on your own for what the Cyrillic lettering spells out. But in the upper diagram, you can get a sense of how small some of the rooms really are. The total volume of the habitable modules, according to ESA, is just 550 cubic meters (about 19,500 cubic feet).
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Isolation facility

That layout corresponds to this series of tubes in the IBMP facility in Moscow.

This will be the entirety of the landscape for the current six-man Mars500 crew for 520 days, or about 17 months. Last summer, the Mars500 project wrapped up a warm-up stay with a different sextet, who occupied the isolation facility for 105 days. That crew's warm-and-fuzzy public diary entries gave the impression that the three-and-a-half-month stay was no more stressful than a suburban sleepover.

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Institute of Biomedical Problems

This is likely the last view of the outside world for the Mars500 participants--the exterior of the isolation facility at the Institute of Biomedical Problems.
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Alexey Sitev

Alexey Sitev (foreground), the Mars500 mission commander, used a flight simulator on June 14 to represent undocking from the International Space Station. The 38-year-old engineer, shipbuilder, and specialist in deep-water diving was the head of diving training for cosmonauts, including exercises in simulated weightlessness in preparation for spacewalks.
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Control room

This is 31-year-old automotive industry engineer Romain Charles in the "control room." The simulated mission has three main phases: 250 days in transit to Mars; 30 days for surface operations, during which time three crewmembers move to the Martian surface simulator; and 240 days for the return trip to Earth.

Here are the milestone dates:
• June 3, 2010: Depart from Earth
• June 14, 2010: Depart from Earth orbit
• July 11, 2010: Begin transfer flight to Mars
• December 18, 2010: Arrive in Mars orbit
• January 27, 2011: Land on Mars and begin surface operations on Mars
• March 8, 2011: End surface operations and return to main ship
• April 17, 2011: Begin return trip to Earth
• September 24, 2011: Return to Earth orbit
• November 6, 2011: Land on Earth and emerge from isolation.

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Diego Urbina

Diego Urbina, a 27-year-old electrical engineer from Italy, works joysticks at a laptop computer. ESA says the crew's duties include regular playing of unspecified video games, with the goal of helping to develop computerized "electronic partners" for crewmembers on actual deep-space missions.

"In my free time," Urbina wrote in a July 7 diary entry, "I have been also busy programming an e-mail client and a Twitter client that allow me to send and receive information in the structured way that is needed for mission control, just brushing up my programming skills! (I'm programming it on MATLAB, for the curious)."

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Alexandr Smoleevskiy

Welcome to sick bay. Alexandr Smoleevskiy, a 32-year-old physician in the Russian armed forces, shows off the pharmacy for the Mars500 crew. But officially, he's a researcher for the project. Kamolov, a surgeon, is the flight doctor.
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Yue Wang

Beijing resident Yue Wang shows Charles how to write with Chinese characters. The 27-year-old Wang brings a background in physiology and preventive medicine, along with two years of astronaut training.
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Chow time

Meals for the Mars500 participants are modeled after those on the International Space Station. "During some of those meals," Urbina wrote in a July 7 diary entry, "irony hits us mercilessly when we eat trekking food from a brand whose motto is 'food for your outdoors life.'"
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While most of the fixings for meals were designed for long storage, the Mars500 crew does grow some of its own fruits and vegetables.
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Storage room

This is the storage unit. For birthdays of Charles and Kamolov in July, the crew broke out some frozen cake and powdered wine.
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Staying Wii Fit

Crewmembers are expected to exercise an hour a day, using gear including the Wii Fit balance board...
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Exercise room

...but also more traditional exercise machinery, and workout togs straight out of the 1960s.
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Personal space

Personal space, personal time. Charles listens to music in his 3-square-meter cabin.

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