Six men three from Russia, one from China, one from France, and one from Italy are now sealed in a facility at a medical institute in Russia for an experiment designed to simulate a manned mission to Mars.
The six "cosmonauts" will have only email contact with the outside world for the next 17 months, as part of the Mars500 project.
A group of interconnected steel canisters makes up the facility. Wood panelling covers the walls of four of the tubes, which will make up the living and working space for the cosmonauts while they are closed off from the world. One module is reserved for medical facilities, a necessity on a voyage the length of a real one to Mars.
Another module will act as a storage facility, for food and supplies. This module will also include a gym, which the cosmonauts can use to keep themselves fit when they're not doing other active tasks.
The floor of another canister is covered in rocks and sand, in an attempt to simulate the surface of Mars. (Click here for a graphic detailing the setup of the "spaceship.") A "mission" will see three cosmonauts don space suits and walk on the "surface" of the Mars-like room.
Among the experiments that will be done by and on the cosmonauts are ones similar to those conducted on cosmonauts who have lived aboard the International Space Station for extended periods of time: monitoring quality of sleep, levels of nutrients in the body, and swings in mood. These experiments will be done by the cosmonauts themselves and also by scientists outside the modules that will be monitoring the situation within.
Also on the agenda is the introduction of a 20-minute time delay in communications, to simulate the real-life situation that cosmonauts on Mars would encounter in attempting to communicate with people back on Earth.
The Mars500 project gets its name in part from the number of days that the cosmonauts will be inside the various modules: 520. A mission last year sent another crew of six men into a spacecraft simulator for 105 days.