Mars colony simulations: Crew may revolt without strong interplanetary communication

As extraterrestrial settlers gain independence from mission control, they could test the line between healthy autonomy and closed-off anarchy.

Monisha Ravisetti Former Science Writer
Monisha Ravisetti was a science writer at CNET. She covered climate change, space rockets, mathematical puzzles, dinosaur bones, black holes, supernovas, and sometimes, the drama of philosophical thought experiments. Previously, she was a science reporter with a startup publication called The Academic Times, and before that, was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. When she's not at her desk, she's trying (and failing) to raise her online chess rating. Her favorite movies are Dunkirk and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Monisha Ravisetti
4 min read

After humans are sent to live on Mars, what if they stop communication with us on Earth?

Mars One

Earlier this month, six people began their tenure in an immersive experiment that's either your greatest dream or your worst nightmare: They're living in a simulated extraterrestrial colony while being monitored by its builders. It's part of Project Sirius, an eight-month off-world settlement test taking place in Moscow. 

Given the rampant interest in colonizing other planets -- especially from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk -- scientists behind these experiments are learning what physical and psychological consequences could be in store for future Martian or lunar settlers. And even though 2021's Sirius simulation just started on Nov. 4, there's already a good chunk of data to work with from tests in 2017 and 2019.

Among those analyzing the specifics, one research team has noted two striking outcomes: Members of the "off-Earth society" grew increasingly autonomous, and they progressively communicated their feelings less often with mission control. The researchers published their findings Nov. 9 in the journal Frontiers in Physiology

At face value, strong independence seems promising in a potential Martian society. If settlers perceive full control of their mission, they'd function confidently on their own and work collaboratively, drawing on their comfort with one another. That could benefit later interplanetary endeavors by easing individual anxiety and enhancing group cohesion for carrying out protocols.

That was one of the surprising findings of the study. "The communication characteristics of crew members with different personalities, genders and cultures became more similar during the mission," said co-author Dmitry Shved of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Moscow Aviation Institute.

But on a deeper level, letting go of mission control's hand invites some challenges.

"The negative side is that the mission control loses the possibility to understand the needs and problems of the crew, which consequently hinders mission control's ability to provide support," Shved said. 

Taking it a step (or five) further, if the crew achieves a super high level of autonomy and cohesion, according to Shved, there's another potential concern -- they might seek complete detachment from external governing structures. Basically, Martian-humans could revolt from Earthlings.

But not to worry, at least not too much. "During the period when the Mars colonies will still be dependent on resupplies and people coming from Earth," he said, "the probability of severance of diplomatic relations seems rather low."

Ground control to Major Tom

Project Sirius is all-encompassing. Each simulation gave participants the whole nine yards of space "colonization" to unlock precise details of off-world group dynamics.

First, subjects underwent a realistic takeoff and landing -- rockiness and all. Then they were immediately isolated in chambers from the outside world. The brave souls also weren't given an abundance of supplies, were told to utilize onboard greenhouses and even experienced signal lags while talking to mission control. 

After the respective 17-day and 120-day periods of 2017's and 2019's experiments, Shved's team began observing how communication between the experimental crews and mission control evolved over time.

"The crews in simulated missions tended to reduce their communication with the mission control during the isolation," Shved said, "sharing their needs and problems less and less -- with rare exceptions such as important mission events, like landing simulation." 

On the other hand, over the course of the mission there was a convergence of communication styles among Project Sirius crew members and an increase in crew cohesion, even though the crew composition was diverse by gender and cultural background, with pronounced individual differences, according to Shved.

Regarding gender, the team's study indicated that those who identified as women reacted differently to stress than those who identified as men based on speech acoustic indicators, facial expressions and content analysis of their messages. Unlike men, women manifested both joy and sadness facially, and showcased stress less audibly in speech, Shved said.

That data coincides with stress management gender differences for space colonization in data obtained by Sheryl Bishop of California's Space Surgery Institute, according to Shved. Her work was derived from results of a study that involved a four-month Martian space simulation known as FMARS, situated deep in the Canadian Arctic.

"However," he said, "it should be noted that all female subjects in Sirius experiments were Russian, while males were Russian, German and American -- so the cultural background could influence the observed differences."

The researchers intend to continue studying communication behavior in crew members of the Sirius-21 experiment. And for both private and public agencies looking to begin extraterrestrial colonization, Shved urges that the main points revealed by his team's analysis should ideally be discussed prior to the mission, and he stressed the importance of a good chat with "home."

"Considering the technical means of communication, video messaging from the crew, colonists and back seems to be preferable," he said, "as it provides better emotional connection, even under the signal lag and delay effect."