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By David Reneke

Welcome Back – From Mars

Since June last year, the six crew members of a simulated mission to Mars have been isolated in a special facility near Moscow. Their “arrival” back on Earth was scheduled for 4 November, with the crew going directly into quarantine for 4 days of medical checks.

Mars500 is the first full duration simulation of a human mission to Mars in a mock facility faithfully duplicating almost all aspects of real spaceflight. The only things that couldn’t be incorporated into this vital exercise, of course, were weightlessness and the little-known effects of radiation.

During the almost 18-month duration, the international crew comprising two Europeans, three Russians and one Chinese have “flown” to Mars, “landed” on their destination planet and made several spacewalks on a simulated Martian terrain.

They have been faced with monotony, delayed communications and complete lack of daylight in their windowless habitat – things that would almost certainly be encountered on a real interplanetary flight lasting several months.

In order to get a crew to Mars intact, space scientists know that you need to get your psychological profiling right. One of the biggest unknowns of deep spaceflight is human behaviour and how interactions between the crew members are affected during a long stay in a confined space while under stress. This was the main focus of the Mars500 experiment.

Besides the human factor, many challenges still have to be met and definite technical problems need to be solved. Results from this experiment, and others like it, will help scientists, engineers and operators to evaluate what the space travellers of the future will go through.

On a positive note, the crew performed as a unified and stable team. There were no significant conflicts, and the difficult “journey” was completed as a real crew would conduct a live mission to Mars. That’s promising.

But how long will it be before we get to the Red Planet? Well, that date is not known at this stage, but consider this: the first people to walk on Mars have already been born, and the first people to colonise it are being born now!

Extreme Ballooning on Titan
A forward-thinking company in Oregon, USA, is working with NASA to develop what some would consider a pure “pie in the sky” project: a balloon that could fly through the skies of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Titan’s thick atmosphere and lakes of organic materials hold particular intrigue for scientists. They’re curious about how life began on Earth and whether it exists elsewhere in the solar system.

Titan may hold the key. It’s a primordial Earth, but exploring this enigmatic world won‘t be easy.

Titan’s skies are perpetually clouded, blocking any attempt to explore its surface with ground-based telescopes. So, we’ll have to go there. Radar and infrared instruments can provide some details of what’s below, but the rest is guesswork.

What scientists really want is a mission that could explore Titan’s diverse terrain in detail; some method that allows them to scour large regions at a time and be flexible enough to withstand changes in terrain and temperature conditions.

Jeffery Hall of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, says that a balloon may be just the ticket. “The big thing that a balloon gives you is that it moves around,” Hall said. “If you send a lander or a probe, it goes to one spot and stays there forever.”

Designing a system for Titan presents enormous challenges. It’s so cold, about –300°F, but NASA has developed what its scientists hope is the best material for ballooning on Titan: a sandwich of polyester film glued to a layer of polyester fibres.

So far, the only planet beyond Earth that has been explored by balloons is Venus back in the 1980s. A similar mission to Titan is already under development, and NASA plans to test a small-scale Titan balloon at cryogenic temperatures next year.

Meanwhile, Oregon-based Near Space Corp is working on systems needed to deploy and then inflate the balloon. “Right now, we’re helping to get better simulations using terrestrial materials,” says Near Space president Tim Lachenmeier.

Once computer modelling is completed to contour the design of the balloon to better match Titan’s environment, a mission could launch well inside this present decade.

David Reneke is an astronomy lecturer and teacher, a feature writer for major Australian newspapers and magazines, and a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio. Subscribe to David’s free Astro-Space newsletter at www.davidreneke.com