Space & Health News – Rise of the Analogs

Researching and preparing for the complexities and hazards of space exploration calls for significant resources. Under ideal circumstances, the scientific and technical experiments required would be conducted in conditions identical to those of the target environment. But when the target environment is the outer space, the costs and logistical difficulties posed by transporting equipment and people to perform experiments in situ are orders of magnitude higher than what most research organizations – including national space agencies – can afford.

This is where “analogs” come into the picture. “Analogs” are environments on Earth that produces physical, mental and emotional effects on the human participants similar to those experienced in space. “Analog missions” are studies and/or training events carried out by “analog astronauts” in natural or man-made environments on Earth which simulate some of the extreme conditions of space – such as isolation, extreme temperatures, or demanding physical conditions.

Such missions go a long way in filling in the gaps in our knowledge of spaceflight and life in space, and help us prepare for near-term and future exploration to asteroids, the Moon and Mars.

WELCOME TO SPACE & HEALTH NEWS, our monthly briefing on opportunities and advances in deep space medicine and space healthcare. In this issue, we take a closer look at critical space exploration studies done right here on Earth, in conditions that simulate the hazards and pressure of living and working in outer space.


Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS)

The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), owned and operated by the Mars Society, is a space analog facility in Utah that supports Earth-based research in pursuit of the technology, operations, and science required for human space exploration.

The MDRS hosts an eight-month field season for professional scientists and engineers as well as college students of all levels, in training for human operations specifically for Mars. Most crews carry out their mission under the constraints of a simulated Mars mission. Most missions are 2-3 weeks in duration.

The MDRS campus is surrounded by landscape that is an actual geologic Mars analog, which offers opportunities for rigorous geological and biological field studies similar to what the first crews on Mars will conduct. Photo: Wikipedia, CC by 3.0.

One of the training and experimentation programs/missions conducted at the MDRS Mars Lander Habitat (“the HAB”) is the Martian Medical Analogue and Research Simulation – a continuing-education course for medical professionals who want to learn about healthcare in space. The brainchild of Prof. Ben Easter, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, this program uses the HAB’s two-story facility as the course participants’ combined home and place of work during a Mars surface exploration simulation. During the course, the participants live in the HAB and learn about Mars-relevant topics like radiation, hyperbaric medicine, contingency planning, and the psychological difficulties of isolation and confinement. They also are assigned outdoors tasks that requires them to don their spacesuits for extravehicular activities (EVAs). As safe and contained as the program is designed to be, inevitably real or simulated accidents occur – and the students have to assess and respond to each incident using the same type of equipment they would have at their disposal on Mars, and within the physical and safety limitations they would experience on Mars.

Interested in signing up for a mission on the Mars Desert Research Station? Follow the link to apply for the 2020-2021 field season.

Scientific International Research in a Unique terrestrial Station (SIRIUS)-19

Operated jointly by the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) and by NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP), SIRIUS-19 was a four-month long international lunar mission simulation performed in the Institute for Biomedical Problems’ NEK multi-chamber facility. Completed in July this year, the mission brought together an international crew (two Americans and four Russians), led by veteran Russian cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin.

The experiment simulated the four main phases of a lunar exploration mission – traveling to the Moon, orbiting the Moon, landing on the Moon, and returning to Earth. The first two phases were timed to complete in three days (similar to the duration of a real journey to the Moon), and were followed by a simulated rendezvous with the part of the habitat that represented the “Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway” – a NASA-proposed space station slated to begin construction in the next decade.

The following 100 days of the mission were spent in the hermetically-sealed NEK facility, where the crew conducted over 80 experiments and a host of psychological and physiological exams, so researchers could then study their physiological, psychological and behavioral responses. Photo credit: Institute of Biomedical Problems, Russia.

The design of the habitat, organized into four interlinked modules containing dedicated-purpose activity areas, played an important role in making the experiment feel realistic. Similar to the lighting system on the International Space Station, the habitat was illuminated by a LED lighting system programmed to control lighting levels in step with the human body’s standard circadian rhythm. All the meals were prescheduled and prepared by the crew, using freeze-dried food as the main ingredient. In addition, the air pressure in the habitat was maintained at 3 percent less than the atmospheric pressure, to prevent dust particles and outside atmosphere from entering the facility.

The data collected through missions such as SIRIUS-19 helps researchers understand the psychology of crews in confined habitats on long duration missions. For example, SIRIUS-19 confirmed the hypothesis that selecting a crew based on criteria that include not only technical and mission expertise, but also the right personality traits, can lead to positive team dynamics that act as countermeasures to health hazards such as stress, circadian desynchronization, social isolation, and loss of sleep.

Want to participate in the next SIRIUS mission at the NEK facility in Moscow, Russia? Follow the link for participation criteria and contact information.

Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA)

The HERA facility is located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, and it consists of a three-story habitat designed to serve as an analog for isolation, confinement, and remote conditions in exploration scenarios. HERA missions generally last 45 days, during which the four-person crew selected for the mission conduct a specific exploratory task – such as a geological survey of a simulated asteroid, or, a trip to Phobos, the larger of the two moons of Mars.

During the course of the mission, the crew is monitored for factors related to behavioral health and performance – quality of sleep, mood, stressors and stress reactions, task performance under stress conditions, and teamwork. Photo credit: NASA

The studies conducted through the HERA analog address different aspects of the crew’s challenges. Data collected from these studies helps researchers measure the effects of isolation and confinement on team functioning and identify methods to improve team performance. Researchers from Northwestern University, for instance, have used behavioral data from multiple HERA missions to develop a predictive model to help NASA anticipate conflicts and communication breakdowns among crew members. This model is being tested to see how a team’s workflows and communications can be optimized to make them more successful and to eliminate problems that could make or break a Mission to Mars.

Click the Play button, then use the hand-tool to drag the image for a 360-degree view of the interior of the HERA habitat. Courtesy of NASA

Interested in joining a team of analog astronauts and contributing to space exploration research? NASA’s Human Research Program is looking for volunteers for the next HERA mission. Click here to apply.


SAND-E (Semi-Autonomous Navigation for Detrital Environments) Project

Analog studies are not just for humans. Robotic rovers designed for deployment on Mars require pre-deployment testing and “training” just as much as astronauts do.

Earlier this year, researchers from Texas A&M University’s Department of Geology and Geophysics selected one of the lava fields in Iceland as the test-bed for their prototype Martian rover and companion drone. Their experiments, carried out in July and August as part of the NASA-funded SAND-E project, aimed to collect data that would inform NASA’s planned Mars 2020 mission of robotic exploration of the Red Planet.

The robotic rover used in the SAND-E experiment was a remote-controlled, 1,257-pound (570 kilograms) rover which moved at 7.9 inches (20 centimeters) per second. This slow pace allowed the rover to use its sensors and dual-lens camera to collect data and images as it traversed the Icelandic terrain – similar to the way the Mars 2020 rover would collect images on the surface of Mars. 

Researchers from Texas A&M University’s Department of Geology and Geophysics  tested this rover prototype together with a drone prototype in Iceland this summer.  Image credit: Ryan Ewing

Ryan Ewing, Texas A&M’s principal investigator for the project, believes that Iceland provides a particularly good analog for Mars and for the Moon due to its mineralogy and cold climate. The site where the team tested the rover and the drone was selected due to its location at the bottom of a glacier, so the team was able to navigate the rover through rivers flowing beneath the glacier and study the generation of sediment from glacial, river and wind erosion. The data collected during this mission could help scientists interpret ancient geological features on planets like Mars that may have been shaped by liquid water.


If this article got you interested in exploring analog astronaut missions and activities, there are plenty of options for you to consider, both in the United States and overseas. Check out the roster of analog training and analog experiment locations maintained by Analog Astronaut – Chasing Space on Earth.

Featured image: Analog Astronauts during a soil sampling for the glacier MASE experiment during the AMADEE-15 mission in 2015.

Photo credit Austrian Space Forum/OeWF (Claudia Stix)

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