In case you didn’t know, there was a big pretend manned mission to Mars going on in 2010 and 2011, organized by the Russian Academy of Science in conjunction with the European and Chinese space agencies. The experiment, Mars500, placed six people in a simulated spaceship en route to Mars for 520 days, in order to find out problems which would occur in the process.

kepler telescope Mars500

The main purpose was to show how astronauts would fare physiologically and psychologically, under such isolated conditions. Their vital signs, urine, blood and sleep patterns were monitored daily.

“Our major finding was that there were really large individual differences with how the crew responded to the isolation,” said psychiatrist Mathias Basner of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who helped run the sleep experiment, which appeared Jan. 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Four of them showed at least one issue that could have exploded or led to a severe adverse effect during a Mars mission.”

There have been other experiments focusing on isolated groups, most notably the people staying over winter in Antarctica, but this is the first experiment focusing on a manned mission to Mars. All volunteers reacted quite differently to the conditions, and only two of them fared very well; also, most of them retained a 24 hour sleep cycle, but one of them actually fell into a 25 hour sleep cycle.

“He became disconnected,” said Basner, adding that about 20 percent of the time he was the only crewmember awake or the only one asleep.

“If you have people awake when others are sleeping, that doesn’t bode well for crew dynamics and cohesion,” said biomedical researcher Lauren B. Leveton, who studies behavioral health and performance at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and who was not involved with the research. Such detachment would likely have to be counteracted in a real deep-space mission, she added.

sleep deprivationAnother interesting result was that all the volunteers sleeped a lot longer than usual. That can probably put on the fact that for large periods of time, they had nothing to do. In our modern lives, most of us actually suffer from chronic sleep deprivation, but we don’t even realize it. Given enough time, we would sleep more than we typically do, and as a result, our cognitive abilities would increase. However, a different volunteer started sleeping for shorter and shorter periods, which caused his cognitive abilities to suffer. Another had issues with mood and depression.

The truth is that probably, all of this was happening due to boredom. You can only play Guitar Hero so many times, and take out the physical exercise and daily mechanical routines, there’s only so much you can do.

Though nothing truly serious happened on Mars500, the experiment did highlight the problems which can occur on such a mission – and these problems would be much larger in the case of an actual mission. Furthermore, it underlines the importance of finding personality markers for crew selection. Also, another takeaway is that this could actually help many people who are not going into outer space.

“It underscores the fact that people living on Earth should get a chance to sleep more. It lets us improve cognitively,” said Basner.

In terms of sleep improvement, in 2015, the International Space Station will upgrade from its stark fluorescent lighting to LED lights that can adjust their blue wavelengths, which will hopefully help astronauts regulate their sleep patterns.