Augmenting NASA’s Mars Simulation for the Health of Astronauts

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nasa-hawaii_featuredEight-thousand, two-hundred feet above sea level on the northern slope of Mauna Loa in a place surrounded by the barren, lava-rock landscape of an abandoned quarry, six scientists are living in isolation for 365 days in a roughly 1,000 sq. ft. dome.

That’s tight quarters. That’s a year stuck in a space not much larger than a racquetball court.

The domed habitat is called HI-SEAS, the Hawai’I Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, and it’s NASA’s longest Earth-based Mars simulation. It is designed to test how humans deal with various challenges of a Mars mission, a trip that NASA is planning to take by the year 2030. The crew has no contact with the outside world except that which they would have on a long space flight headed for Mars, a mission that could potentially take up to three years in reality.

“If you’re going to Mars a year and a half trip each way, and you’re putting up a Mars colony, the separation from Earth is…intense,” says Jacki Morie, who NASA hired to help figure out how virtual reality could assist astronauts dealing with separation. “The stimulation that you can see outside the space capsule is very diminished – you’re not going to be seeing earth except as it disappears to a dot in the distance, which can be psychologically very bad for [astronauts].”

The one-year test at the Hawaii facility is the fourth in a series of simulations, and it is the first to include an augmented reality (AR) component to test how social contact in a virtual space can help astronauts stay psychologically healthy. To help them communicate with their families and keep in touch with elements of life on earth like backyard barbeques and walks by the lakeside, the HI-SEAS simulation includes an augmented reality space called ANSIBLE (A Network of Social Interactions for Bilateral Life Enhancement) and it’s based on avatar interaction.

ANSIBLE is a project developed by Jacki Morie (All These Worlds LLC) and SIFT (, an R&D company specializing in human-automation interaction technologies.

“We envision [families] doing something like recording their avatar singing happy birthday, and then when the crew member comes in, they see the avatars singing to them,” says Morie. Measurements are taken before and after the experience to determine the change in their stress hormone levels and see if over time their psychological state is more stable.

The international crew isolated at the HI-SEAS dome includes a variety of different researchers whose work ties to space: Carmel, a water and soil scientist specializing in food production on Mars; Christiane, a German geophysicist and engineer who was a finalist for the Mars Society’s MA365 mission; Sheyna, a medical officer with degrees in neuroscience, medicine, biotechnology and journalism who designed a Mars spacesuit for the Lunar and Planetary Institute; Andrzej, an English aeorspace engineer who has served as an interplanetary flight controller on several space flight consoles and as flight engineer for the sixth mission of NASA’s simulated journey to asteroid 1620 Geographos; Cyprien, an astrobiologist researching how humans can live off the land on Mars using the existing biology; and Tristan, an architect specializing in human habitation in extreme environments.

While some of them like to cook, play guitar, and have plans to make their co-crew members learn to dance and practice languages together, 1,000 square feet is confining, and without contact with family and the usual comforts of life on earth, humans can not only get grouchy but suffer negative psychological effects, as prior simulations have showed.

According to an ANSIBLE press-release, the conditions are explicitly designed to be similar to those of a planetary surface exploration mission, and include a communication delay that reduces their ability to connect with the outside world. Using ANSIBLE, crew members have the opportunity to immerse themselves in 3D virtual simulations of Earth-type places and activities designed to benefit their psychological health.

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