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Russia to launch 520-day mock mission to Mars

By Derrick Ho, Special to CNN
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Russia sets sights on Mars
  • Mars500 team to be locked up in a windowless capsule for about a year and a half
  • Six men to be in cramped, claustrophobic conditions in a special facility in Moscow
  • They'll talk to mission control via internet, do tasks similar to space station astronauts
  • Organizers hope project will shed light on psychological, physical effects of Mars mission

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- In an attempt to re-create the experience of a manned mission to Mars, an international team of researchers will lock themselves up in a windowless capsule for about a year and a half -- time required for a round trip to the Red Planet.

Starting Thursday, an all-male "crew" of six -- three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian and a Chinese -- will spend 520 days in the cramped and claustrophobic conditions of a special facility in Moscow and will follow a strict regimen of exercise and diet.

Organizers at the European Space Agency and Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems hope the project will shed light on the physical and psychological effects of the long isolation that future Mars astronauts will experience.

"This study is not useful only for Mars, but also for life on Earth," 27-year-old Diego Urbina, the Italian-Colombian participant, said in a news release.

The researchers will communicate with mission control via the internet, with occasional disruptions and a 20-minute delay to imitate the effects of space travel.

Video: Mock mission to Mars

They will perform tasks similar to astronauts at the international space station, such as maintenance and scientific experiments, but for a longer period of time. They will follow a seven-day week with two days off, except when special and emergency situations are simulated.

The latest isolation test is the last and longest part of the Mars500 experiment that began in 2007. The first phase was a 14-day simulation that mainly tested the facilities and operational procedures. The second phase followed in 2009, when four Russian and two European crew members were shut into the facility for 105 days.

Missions to the Red Planet have thus far been unmanned. In January, NASA told CNN Radio that the agency was close to a deal to merge its Mars program with the European Space Agency's, a big step toward manned missions.

In the meantime, NASA is preparing for the launch of its newest robotic space exploration vehicle, the Mars Science Laboratory, late next year. It weighs roughly one metric ton and is about the size of a small automobile.