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Russian Module for Virtual Mars Mission Set to Go

It's a mission to Mars — without leaving Moscow.

Russian scientists have finished fashioning a crucial section of a mock spacecraft that will simulate a voyage to the Red Planet, an official at the Moscow institute leading the project said Wednesday.

For at least 520 days, the barrel-shaped metal structure will serve as living quarters for six crew members picked from thousands of applicants around the world for a pretend voyage that in real life may be decades away.

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The simulated space flight, to start in late 2008, is meant to set the stage for a trip to Mars by testing the health, performance and crew interaction under the trying conditions of such a journey.

"In order to later help the guys who really do go to Mars, we must model everything on Earth," said Mark Belakovsky, chief manager of the Mars500 project at the Institute of Biomedical Problems, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The living quarters, somewhat larger than a railroad car, will be part of a windowless warren of five linked modules being built at the institute off a busy street near central Moscow.

The institute and the European Space Agency, or ESA — a "strategic partner" in the project — are separately considering applications for the mock voyage as well as two shorter, preliminary experiments — also with crews of six. The ESA last month announced it was looking for candidates.

Once the main study begins, the crew members will remain aboard for the duration barring emergencies, Belakovsky said. "They will have taken off, and that's it."

It will then be 250 days to Mars and 240 days back, with three participants spending a month on the planet itself — or rather, in a module meant to represent it.

Before they "land," those three will spend a month in a separate module, lying on their backs with their heads slightly lower than their feet — a position Belakovsky said was meant to simulate weightlessness.

There will also be a biomedical module and one for storage and fitness. But the crew will spend much of their time in the 150 cubic meter (5,300 cubic foot) living module, which has a cabin for each as well as a common room and a kitchen.

All food will be taken on before the simulated journey begins, as will the water. No alcohol, please, and no smoking.

In another break with the outside world, no television. Communication with Earth — whether ground control or family — will be complicated by a delay of up to 20 minutes in each direction.

The crew's mettle is likely to be tested with mock emergencies Belakovsky said might include a radiation scare, a fire on board or even a death.

The entire structure, private cabins and bathrooms excepted, will be equipped with multiple cameras constantly monitoring the action — or inaction — within.

Sound like a reality show? Belakovsky said the institute has turned down offers to make it into one, though a documentary film is planned.

"It is not a reality show, it is a serious, pioneering research experiment," he said.

But with six people cooped up in close quarters for nearly a year and a half, sparks are likely to fly.

"If you and your girlfriend were to shut yourselves in a room for three days, five days, a month — believe me, you would have a million problems. Either she would strangle you or you would strangle her," Belakovsky said.

"We think that in such experiments, anything can happen," he said.

Finding out just what does happen is a main purpose of the project, which Belakovsky said would provide useful information about "small-group psychology."

With an estimated cost of $15 million, Mars500 is being funded largely by the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

In addition to the ESA partnership, Belakovsky said, organizers welcome the participation of organizations from other countries — talks have been held with U.S. apace agency NASA — and are seeking sponsors.

Applicants to be "human subjects" for the experiment must be college graduates aged 25 to 50, and must speak Russian and English. Doctors, biologists and engineers are preferred.

The ESA, mostly accepting applications from European countries, is to select two of the six crew members.

The Russian institute has received applications from countries ranging from Armenia to Australia and Bulgaria to Brazil.

Diversity is key, Belakovsky said, "because it is our firm conviction that it won't be a Russian crew or an American crew that travels to Mars, but a mixed crew representing the human race."