by Peter Griffin | from the Herald on Sunday

Photos courtesy of my friend Ellie who visited Nasa in 2003 and got up close and personal with the Mars Rover!

It has to be one of the more unusual job descriptions ever advertised: spend 18 months locked in a metal tank with five other people, eating vacuum-packed food, with only radio contact with the outside world.

But that’s exactly what the European Space Agency is looking for people to do, and it’s all in the name of space exploration.

The agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems want to simulate a manned mission to Mars, including the 520-day trip to and from the Red Planet, the landing of a space craft and the scientific testing such a trip would involve.

Why undertake such a time-consuming experiment? Because space agencies have their hearts set on landing people on Mars. As the ESA explains: “To go to Mars is still a dream and one of the last gigantic challenges. But one day, some of us will be on precisely that journey to the Red Planet.”

To give any such mission a chance of succeeding, it needs to be simulated first, in part to determine whether astronauts would be able to psychologically cope with being cooped up together for such an extended time.

The agency admits the whole thing has the feel of a reality TV show. I could imagine it turning into one massive episode of Big Brother, with bed-hopping astronauts, territorial arguments and emotional meltdowns.

But the agency says the volunteers on the simulated mission will be kept busy carrying out the activities Mars-bound astronauts would be given. So it wants candidates with scientific, engineering and medical backgrounds.

The six participants will live in a series of metal compartments about 200sq m in size – roughly the space of four studio apartments stuck together. There will be living quarters, a kitchen, a research area and medical room. They’ll be able to talk to the equivalent of ground control and presumably their families, but once the hatch is closed and the astronauts start their journey, they will be on their own, having to fend for themselves if anything goes wrong.

The experiment could produce a treasure trove of information for psychologists and the agency is working out what scientific tests it will carry out on the participants.

Key will be exploring the group dynamic that develops, the effects of the confinement on things like sleep, mood and the ability to perform complicated tasks. The agency also plans to look at medical procedures that could be performed.

As the months pass, scientists will no doubt be peering into the tanks via closed-circuit TV cameras, to scrutinise everything that goes on.

Mars is about 1 1/2 times as far from the Sun as the Earth is, though the distance between the two planets fluctuates wildly from around 56 million kilometres in 2003, when they were at their closest in tens of thousands of years to 380 million kilometres at their farthest apart.

As epic as any manned trip to Mars will be, many countries – the US, China, and the members of the European Space Agency included – are investigating the potential.

There have been several unmanned trips and another will begin in early August when the US$414 million ($542 million) Phoenix Mars Lander will be launched. Phoenix will land on the northern Martian plains, on top of ancient fields of ice which lie below the planet’s surface. The plan is for Phoenix to scoop up some ice and analyse it, beaming the results back to Earth.

As much as the Mars Rover’s exploits on the Red Planet caught the world’s attention, that will be nothing compared with the buzz a manned mission would generate. So who wants to be the first Kiwi to pretend to go to Mars? The hyperactive and claustrophobic need not apply.

A few robotic Mars discovery vehicles from the Nasa colection. Remember when Rover’s wheel got stuck on a rock? Easy to dislodge on the floor at Nasa, not so easy when you’re using a joystick to control a robot that’s tens of millions of kilometres away…