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Flying to the Moon without actually taking off

19 March 2019

Four months before the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing by the Apollo 11 astronauts, six 'cosmonauts' will embark on a simulated journey to the Moon.

Space station on Earth (Credit: DLR)

The special experiment will begin at the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IBMP RAS) in Moscow on 19 March 2019 at 14:00 local time. Three female and three male 'cosmonauts' will embark on a simulated journey to our terrestrial neighbour. Closed off from the outside world, they will live, work and research in conditions of complete isolation in the Moscow NEK Habitat.

"Only biomedical research of this nature will make future journeys to other celestial bodies possible. Six of these experiments have been developed in Germany," notes Christian Rogon, SIRIUS Project Manager at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) Space Administration. DLR is participating in the SIRIUS-19 isolation study together with the French space agency CNES under the leadership of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and the US space agency NASA.

Three women and three men on board

In recent times, the Moon has again become a focus of attention for all the major space agencies. "However, before any meaningful research can be conducted on the Moon, crews must be trained to successfully complete such a mission. For this, as in SIRIUS-19, they must be able to live for a long time under conditions in which they will be subjected to a mixture of psychological stress, due to total isolation, and a high degree of pressure to perform well.

Only in this way can we learn more about the interaction of body and mind in isolation," Rogon explains. These insights are best gained when a simulated lunar mission takes place in a setting that is as realistic as possible. The SIRIUS-19 experiment is being conducted under the command of 44-year-old Russian cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin, who has already carried out one space mission. During the experiment, Tarelkin will embark on a 122-day lunar journey together with his crew – Reinhold Povilaitis, Allen Mirkadyrov (both US Americans), Daria Zhidova, Anastasia Stepanova and Stephania Fedeye (all Russian).

"The interesting thing for SIRIUS-19 is that the crew is composed of an equal number of men and women. How does a mixed-sex crew cope with the challenges of isolation? How does it deal with potential mishaps? How does it react to increased performance pressure? These are all fascinating questions, and we are very curious to find out the answers," says an enthusiastic Christian Rogon as the study begins.

Closed doors (Credit: DLR)

The daily work routine on an orbital lunar station

After travelling for three days, the crew will enter lunar orbit and approach an orbital Moon station; their small capsule will finally dock on the 10th day. The 'cosmonauts' will then be able move into their new living quarters and use the entire station, which from this point on will be their home and their workplace for 100 days. They will undergo daily health and fitness checks, engage in sporting activities, complete safety training, keep the station germ-free, and dock and undock the spacecraft. 

Numerous experiments will complete their eight-hour workday. In the morning, they will eat breakfast together. All other meal times will vary, depending on the daily schedule of the 'cosmonauts'. Every 30 days, a space freighter will deliver food and consumables to the orbital lunar station. Sleeping and waking periods will remain, as far as possible, the same as on Earth. "Since the monotony of working in a very limited space can become a major challenge, the crew will also have to respond to unexpected technical failures and malfunctions, such as a five-day break in communications with 'ground control'," Rogon explains. Radio communication with Earth is generally delayed by five minutes in each direction.

Docking manoeuvres in the isolation trial

During their stay on the orbital lunar station, the cosmonauts must carry out a total of 70 experiments. Six of these have been developed in Germany and are for the most part funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) via the DLR Space Administration. For example, researchers at the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne are testing a new training programme that allows astronauts to practise docking spacecraft with space stations. In this way they can independently learn the mental and motor skills they need to manually control objects with six degrees of freedom. The Institute of Space Systems at the University of Stuttgart is also focusing on docking manoeuvres. In a project devised by former German astronaut Reinhold Ewald, the six 'cosmonauts' have to simulate steering the brand-new Russian spacecraft PTK Federatsiya and docking at a Moon station, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G).

The SIRIUS crew (Credit: DLR)

Training and sleeping for space exploration

Two experiments developed by the German Sport University Cologne are investigating the most effective training methods for astronauts, meant to counteract the reduction in muscle and bone mass as well as impairment of the cardiovascular system and risks to psychological wellbeing that occur on space missions. Sleep doctors from the Berlin Charité hospital are testing whether and how healthy, well-trained 'cosmonauts' in isolation, who do not get enough (or any) sleep, find that this affects their performance the next day, and their autonomous nervous systems. In addition, the Beuth University of Applied Sciences in Berlin would like to find out how crews on long-term missions can remove bacterial contamination or prevent it altogether in the first place, thus avoiding risk of infection and damage to the technical equipment. For this purpose, they are testing surfaces of structured and refined silver (AGXX) and chemically modified graphite surfaces (GOX).

At the halfway point – an excursion to the lunar surface

In addition to the numerous experiments and the many everyday challenges, one very special highlight awaits the crew – a visit to the Moon. "Exactly halfway through the SIRIUS isolation study, four 'cosmonauts' will land on the lunar surface in a small capsule. Once there, they will carry out several 'Moon walks' while wearing spacesuits, collect samples and prepare a 'settlement' on the Moon – a very special experience," Christian Rogon emphasises.

Two 'cosmonauts' will stay behind in the orbital lunar station and monitor the excursion. After the return and successful docking of the lander with the station, the whole crew will orbit the Moon together for another 30 days. During this time, they will remotely control rovers on the lunar surface, dock more spaceships with the orbital station, and carry out numerous experiments before returning to Moscow.

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