On June 3rd, 2010, six brave men left their family and friends to take part in an exciting experiment called Mars500. The brainchild of the European Space Agency (ESA), it is a test to see how humans will interact with each other, if they are forced to live in close quarters, for long periods of time - As would be the case, if we were ever to embark on a journey to Mars.
As we are not ready to actually visit Mars, the experiment entails a simulated journey to the Red Planet, by confining the astronauts inside a sealed five-capsule 1000sq.ft metal unit, for 520 days.
In order to make it as realistic as possible, the astronauts' only contact with the outside world since they 'left' the planet, has been via time-delayed e-mail or through the mission controllers. They also have had to manage their food and water, since of course, there can be no deliveries in transit! It has been eight months since they left and so far the 'mission' is going smoothly and right on schedule.
On February 12th, the mission reached a major milestone - The shuttle's Lander module separated from the Mothership and made a successful landing on the Red Planet. (In reality, three of the six men just moved to an even tinier 6x3 by 6.17 M compartment within the modular buildings set up by Moscow's Institute of Medical And Biological Problems, who is monitoring the experiment.)
The other three astronauts, which include Russia's Alexei Sityov and Sukhrob Kamolov and France's Romain Charles, remain aboard the Mothership and continue to orbit, as they wait for the successful return of their colleagues.
Meanwhile, the Lander successfully reached the planet on February 14th and two of the crewmembers - Russia's Alexander Smoleyevsky and Italy's Diego Urbina have already conducted their first walk on the Red Planet.
Donned in Russian Orian Space suits, the two walked onto the tiny 10m long and 6m wide area that has been set up to resemble Mars, and began, by firmly planting their country flags. They then continued to explore the terrain for a full hour and 12 minutes, before trudging back to their windowless, cylindrical module to join their Chinese crewmate. The astronauts will conduct two additional 'Mars walks' - on February 18th and February 22nd, before leaving to join the Mothership on February 23rd.
Upon their return, the astronauts will be subjected to a three day quarantine, before they re-join their colleagues and resume the journey back to Earth - An endeavor that will keep them sequestered in the tiny capsule for another eight months, all the way into November! To read more about this amazing experiment, check out www.esa.int.