Lessons learned from Mars 520-day simulated mission

Feb. 1, 2013

Dr. Jeffrey Sutton exits the Mars 500 hatch where researchers simulated a mission to Mars.
Dr. Jeffrey Sutton of BCM exits the Mars 500 hatch where researchers simulated a mission to Mars.

If human space flight one day extends to Mars, it will be important to know the effects such a mission will have on the flight crew. Baylor College of Medicine researchers are helping to determine the effects through an international project that simulated a 520-day human mission to the Red Planet.

In a study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at BCM and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania revealed important findings from the study.

The high-fidelity mission was developed by the Institute for Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences and involved an international crew of six, who were confined in a spacecraft-like facility in Moscow.

"We discovered that crew members showed a decrease in waking movement and light exposure and an increase in sleep and rest times as the mission progressed. The majority of crew members also experienced one or more disturbances of sleep quality, vigilance deficits or altered sleep-wake periodicity and timing," said Dr. Jeffrey P. Sutton, professor and director of the Center for Space Medicine at BCM and senior author of the paper.

Researchers measured crew members by having them wear watches that monitored their movement, light exposure and estimated sleep. Computer-based neurobehavioral assessments were also performed throughout the 17 months of mission confinement.

Pictured is the facilty where the Mars500 research simulation project took place.
Pictured is the facilty where the Mars500 research simulation project took place.

"The results show us that there is differential vulnerability to sleep-wake changes during prolonged isolation missions and a need to ensure maintenance of circadian entrainment and behavior," said Sutton, who is also president and CEO of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, of which BCM is the lead institution.

"We need to learn from the results of this study and have crews transit in spacecraft and live in surface habitats that mimic aspects of Earth's geophysical cycle," stated Dr. David F. Dinges, Team Leader of the NSBRI Neurobehavioral and Psychosocial Factors Team and co-lead author of the paper.

Sutton and colleagues at BCM and NSBRI facilitated the groundwork and implemented this important international collaborative study, which has implications for human space exploration as well as life on Earth.