Scientists in Antarctica are learning to fly a spacecraft to study the challenges of a mission to Mars – and simulate the incredible isolation astronauts will face on such long journeys.

Homo Spaciens: Our new life off Earth

There is not much to look at from the window of the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley research station on the Brunt ice shelf in Antarctica. “It’s monotony,” says Nathalie Pattyn. “I can look out of my window now and see the vastness of a flat, white infinity.”

I can look out of my window and see the vastness of a flat, white infinity - Nathalie Pattyn

With mid-summer approaching, and with temperatures reaching a balmy -3C (26F), this is as good as the view gets.

As well as serving as Halley’s medical doctor, Pattyn is a scientist studying the effects of being isolated in a small community under harsh environmental conditions. The research is supported by the European Space Agency (Esa) to investigate the human challenges of living on the Moon or travelling to Mars and back. A round-trip mission like that will take at least two years.

“It’s really sensory deprivation,” says Pattyn. “You have no variation in the outer landscape but also in your social landscape – in winter there are only 12 of us and no-one else.”

From our conversation, over a surprisingly clear phone line, it becomes clear that Pattyn has lived on the base for more than a year.

“I have exactly 23 steps between my bedroom and my working space,” she says. “One of things that really helps is to talk to people at home because that helps you retain perspective – it’s completely like a dystopian society you’d read about in a sci-fi novel.”

It’s completely like a dystopian society you’d read about in a sci-fi novel 

Obviously, that is not a phrase you are likely to see on any British Antarctic Survey recruitment posters. Still, the environment suits Pattyn’s work perfectly. And, while the view may not always be much to look at, one of her studies does involve flying a spaceship.

The project uses a fully-fitted out Soyuz spacecraft simulator to investigate how an astronaut’s skills are likely to degrade during long-duration missions.

“Skill degradation is a very acute and real problem for professions like mine,” says Pattyn.

“I’m a consultant in emergency medicine but it’s now been more than a year since I’ve worked in a hospital where I see 20 patients a day and perform numerous technical acts and so on,” she says. “We send a trained professional to Mars but how much of that training, experience and proficiency can you expect when they haven’t been using those skills?”

This aspect of Pattyn’s research could also have more immediate benefits for the aviation industry on Earth, particularly for pilots returning to work after a break or those switching between models of aircraft.

Skill degradation is a very acute and real problem for professions like mine 

The spacecraft simulator Pattyn uses has identical instrumentation to the real Soyuz and operates in the same way as the Soyuz simulators used by astronauts training at Russia’s Star City. Volunteers taking part in the experiment are even put through the same types of simulated missions to see how they perform.

“We train them until they reach a certain proficiency level,” says Pattyn. “After that they’re divided into two groups, one with frequent training and another with infrequent training.”

Fast forgetting

The same experiment is also being carried out by the doctor based at the French-Italian Concordia research station high on the Antarctic plateau and also back in a control centre at the University of Stuttgart in Germany.

Over the course of the study, it is little surprise that those with fewer training sessions are likely to lose performance. The important questions, however, are how fast knowledge leaches away, how bad the loss is and how those trainees compare to volunteers on the other simulators.

Pattyn has already drawn some tentative conclusions. “We know people have different learning rates – some people grasp things very quickly and others need more time,” she says. “The funny thing is, these are not correlated so you can be a really fast learner but also a really fast forgetter.”

This finding has implications for aircraft pilots, where the ability to learn rapidly is often perceived by instructors as a good indicator of later performance. This study suggests this may not, in fact, be the case.

As well as the spaceflight simulator research, Pattyn is carrying out several other experiments using the confines of the Antarctic station to mirror the challenges of prolonged periods isolated in space.

She insists this is no simulation. “If I have an emergency here now,” says Pattyn, “it will be a true emergency and I will be truly alone to deal with it – much closer to the reality of a real spaceflight than a simulated isolation experiment.”

It’s been amazing to see how severely some people are affected by lack of light and how little others are 

Antarctic personnel also have to cope with the challenges of getting a good night’s sleep in the constant daylight of the polar summer and 24-hour winter darkness. Astronauts on the International Space Station similarly have to adapt to disrupted sleep patterns – enduring 90-minute days. It is likely that any spacecraft on the way to Mars will need to stay in near-continuous sunlight for solar power – with perpetual day on one side and night on the other.

“It’s been amazing to see how severely some people are affected by lack of light and how little others are,” says Pattyn. “I really had trouble keeping awake in winter and having energy during the day without seeing daylight through my window.”

Considering there have been permanently occupied stations in Antarctica for more than 50 years, it is surprising how little research has been done on disrupted body clocks. To investigate the effects, Pattyn is treating volunteers to bright light in winter and melatonin supplements in summer.

“Melatonin hormone in the body tunes us in with the light in the environment,” she explains. “If you have no variation in environmental light then you have issues with secretion of melatonin and that means you have issues with your sleep as well.”

Fights and feuds

Perhaps the greatest challenge, however, of living and working in an isolated environment – whether on an Antarctic base or spaceship on the way to Mars – is managing relationships. How do you prevent petty squabbles turning into feuds or fights?

People lose their sense of perspective quite easily 

At one Antarctic base in the 1990s, the crew mutinied – deciding to no longer follow instructions from their commander. Romantic liaisons have also caused problems – imagine living and working round the clock with your ex. Even more awkward if they are now seeing a colleague that you are also living and working with.

“People lose their sense of perspective quite easily,” says Pattyn. “You need a sound group structure to make your day-to-day life easy but also to respond to an emergency should you have one, otherwise you put people’s lives in danger.”

The challenges faced by those living on a raft of floating ice at the other end of the planet are remarkably similar to those facing the spacefarers of the future. The results of these studies will help both to live, work and adapt to life in the extreme.

So after her Antarctic experience, will Pattyn now sign up for a trip to Mars?

“No,” she says, “I like my life on Earth too much.”

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