Lessons from Mars 500
"The crew is doing well," says Peter Gräf of the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), Project Manager for the German part of the mission. He is pleased with the research results thus far: "The scientists working on the 11 German experiments have already started their initial assessments and are very satisfied with the quality of the data."
Harmony among the crew
"We found a pleasant and unexpected feeling of harmony among the crew. The structure of the relationship between crewmembers remained relatively stable throughout the mission." But, as Italian Diego Urbina explained over the loudspeaker in the control room in the days before exiting the spacecraft, there were still things that they longed for during their isolation in the virtual spacecraft: "Of course, I will be delighted to see my family and friends again," he explained, "But I have also missed seeing unfamiliar faces and getting to appreciate other viewpoints."
Stress and isolation
These results are also important for another experiment, in which doctors are studying the effects of stress caused by isolation and unusual living conditions on the immune system.
"We have identified significant changes in the test subjects' immune systems, which are comparable with changes we have also seen in astronauts during actual spaceflights," says Alexander Choukèr of the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, summarising the initial results.
To be able to draw conclusions on the condition of the immune system over the course of the 520-day mission, the doctor is analysing blood, urine and saliva samples as well as respiratory gas samples. These results can subsequently be applied to patients who are exposed to stress in intensive care units, for example. The Mars500 cosmonauts are facing yet another study; brain scans will be carried out at the end of November to determine whether the stress of their virtual flight has had any effects on the structure of the brain. "We can compare these with the brain scans taken before the mission, to analyse whether connections between areas of the brain have changed as a result of isolation and stress."
"The test subjects' biological clocks tick differently in the Mars500 container,” says Hanns-Christian Gunga of the Charité university hospital in Berlin.
The scientists recorded the subjects’ body temperatures as they changed over the year and a half. The temperatures dropped by 0.4 degrees Celsius on average and temperature minima and maxima moved to different times of day.
"The temperature is the conductor and the rest of the body is the orchestra," explains Gunga. "During isolation, this orchestra has become slightly off beat." The results of this experiment will also be applicable to shift workers, among others.
Not only was the test subjects' daily routine strictly predetermined, in the first year their diet was also the subject of an experiment by Erlangen University. Using almost 400 different products that can all be bought at any supermarket, Jens Titze's team put together a specific diet in which the volume of salt consumed was significantly reduced over the course of the year. After assessing the first of 6000 blood and urine samples, Titze is certain: "The salt balance in the human body is significantly more complex than previously thought."
Eleven German experiments
Additional experiments focused on the study of bone metabolism, the learning of complex control mechanisms on a computer, improvement of physical fitness through vibration training, autonomous emergency medical care and the effects of exercise on stress and isolation. The German Federal Ministry for Economics and Technology (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Technologie; BMWi) is supporting the 11 German Mars500 mission experiments via DLR.