Plans for a manned Mars landing have moved a step closer as Russian space scientists announced an ambitious experiment into the stresses the crew of a mission would be put under.
"Mars 500" is scheduled for next year. It will seek to replicate the physical and psychological pressures on a crew of six astronauts of an 18-month, 485 million-km space flight, including long-term weightlessness, exposure to potentially dangerous belts of radiation, hypermagnetic fields and the critical lack of instantaneous communication with an Earth-bound command centre.
Project head Anatoly Grigoriev, director of Moscow's Institute for Biomedical Problems and a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the international experiment, which will take place in purpose-built steel cylinders kitted out like a space station, would cost at least £15 million.
Once locked inside the cylinders, the crew would be sealed off from contact with the outside world other than strictly controlled communication with those carrying out the experiment.
"Psychological preparation of the crew for a mission that will take a minimum of 500 days is essential," Professor Grigoriev said. "We must create a crew that is able to address any issue in space - medical, technological, scientific, emotional - without immediate advice from Earth."
He believes that only an international crew that brings together the differences in experience and temperament that characterise different cultures could successfully undertake such a mission.
"The crew must be made up of 'renaissance men' - and that expression includes women," said Professor Grigoriev, who was recently criticised for suggesting that a mixed-sex crew would put men under intolerable pressure.