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Space Cadet School: Months In The Arctic Simulates Living On Mars

Seven students spent 101 days in the Arctic to simulate a trip to Mars and help prepare for future space exploration.

Seven student crew members just completed a 101-day simulated trip to Mars, designed to help prepare for future space exploration.

The Mars Society's Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station crew left Devon Island in the high Canadian Arctic this week and announced that they had successfully completed all of their missions. Seven science and engineering students -- four Canadians and three Americans, -- completed what is being described as the longest simulated Mars mission.

The expedition, supported in part by NASA's Spaceward Bound program and the Canadian Space Agency, studied how people would react to difficult living conditions and what happens when permafrost warms. The students are still analyzing their data, but initial results indicate that the most difficult thing for the seven crew members living together was adjusting to Mars time.

Days on Mars are about 40 minutes longer than Earth days. The Arctic summer's 24-hours of daylight allowed the crew to operate on Mars time.

"You can define day and night any way you want," said Chris McKay, principal investigator of NASA's Spaceward Bound program at the Ames Research Center in California, in an interview. "This was a high-fidelity operation on a Mars day cycle and it was the first time it was ever done. You could do it in a lab using artificial light, but in a lab you're not doing anything real. You're just being guinea pigs. It's only possible to do it with field work in a polar region in the summer."

Crew members simply covered the windows of their hub from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. each day. Though some crew members had difficulty adjusting their sleep schedules, other said they never slept more soundly. Many, however, reported increased hunger that came from adding 40 minutes of productivity to their days. Due to the time difference, their 101 Earth days added up to 100 Mars days.

"Some took to it naturally," McKay said. "Some took a long time to adjust to it. What struck me was that there are differences in people's ability to respond naturally to different cycles. The most common statement I heard was that they got hungry. They were up an extra 40 minutes a day and their bodies are metabolizing, doing extra work but not getting extra food. So, there was a mismatch between nutrition and effort. It took a while to figure out and adjust to it."

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