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Manned Mission To Mars (Virtually) Underway

"Astronauts" will live inside a simulated environment for next 18 months as researchers study challenges of extended space flight.

An international team of researchers shuttered themselves inside a virtual spacecraft in Russia Thursday to begin a 520-day simulation of a manned mission to Mars.

The six-man team isn't scheduled to exit their self-contained environment, which includes a mock up of the Red Planet's surface, until November, 2011.

During their mission, the crewmembers will 'fly to Mars' during the first 250 days, land and explore terrain for a month, and then embark on a 230 day return flight.

Their enclosure is equipped with enough food, water, and other supplies to last through the duration of the period. It's also armed with video games, books, and other materials designed to stave off boredom.

The project, called Mars500, is underwritten by the European, Russian, and Chinese space agencies, and operated by Moscow's Institute for Medical and Biological Problems.

The goal is to gain a better understanding of the physical and psychological stresses astronauts would encounter during a months-long trip to Mars.

"In addition to evaluating many novel technologies, Mars500 is the ultimate test of human endurance," the European Space Agency said in a statement. "The crew will no doubt have ups and downs during their long mission and these psychological changes are a key part of the experiment," ESA said.

The crew consists of researchers from Russia, France, Italy, Colombia, and China. They'll work 8-hours per day and have weekends off. Perhaps the worst part? They'll have to exercise two hours per day to avoid muscle atrophy, but they can only shower once a week.

Although the U.S. isn't participating, President Obama recently made it clear that mounting a manned mission to Mars should be a priority for NASA. Obama's recent budget includes funds for research that could see NASA astronauts head to Earth's closet planetary neighbor by the mid-2030's.

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