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the Martian

'Life is left up to you': NUIG researcher delves into her Mars simulation mission

The experiment has been compared to a desert version of the Hollywood movie The Martian.

ILARIA CINELLI, A PhD student in the College of Engineering and Informatics at NUI Galway, was the commander of Crew 172, an international mission for the Mars Desert Research Station.

The mission brought together a team of seven experts from different countries around the world, spending months of training and one month in isolation at a facility in Utah desert, to test the strenuous conditions that astronauts might experience on Mars.

The experiment has been compared to the Hollywood movie The Martian, where an astronaut, played by Matt Damon, is left stranded on Mars and must learn how to live, grappling with isolation and fear.

MM4 Mars Mission Mars Mission

Preparation for isolation

Ilaria wasn’t expecting to be appointed as commander of this mission, but she was flexible and good at adapting to any conditions.

“We were all beginners. It was hard at the start to address their behaviours, you can be scared, there are limited resources, food, water, there’s a lot of danger.

“That’s why I started training with my team 6-months before the mission.”

Because of different nationalities of the team, time zones and internet constraints meant that Skype was out of the question, so Ilaria communicated with her team through email at the start.

Ilaria had heard stories of people on previous missions who had ‘freaked out’ and was aware that it was hard to know how people would react to the harsh environment.

When you’re really stressed, you forgot about science. There have been cases of aggressive behaviour, and even though they’re from the most prestigious university, you just don’t know how people can react.

“When you have one month of isolation far away from all humans with no electricity and limited water and food, life is up to you.”


The research

With experience in research focused on how humans perform in extreme conditions, Crew 172 would focus their research on leadership and isolation.

They also studied sleep, and looked at ways of improving sleep quality for those in harsh conditions because extreme conditions can lead to sleep deprivation which in turn causes of human error.

The facility in Utah desert is surrounded by terrain that is a geologic replica to Mars; located three hours away from the nearest town. Extreme conditions are defined as a place with the limited amounts of food, water, electricity and WiFi and no human interaction.

For four weeks between December and January, Ilaria observed and measured the impact of human behaviour among her crew, brought about by living in such a confined environment and no contact with family or friends.

Ilaria collected data-based research on the crew’s changing behaviour patterns throughout the mission.

MM3 Mars Mission Mars Mission

She found that a lack of social contacts, major responsibilities and stress, led to an improvement in the crew’s performance, confidence, reaction to complex problems, higher levels of inner emotional energy, a resistance to stress, increased internal control and social growth.

Ilaria points to a particular event that she says helped pull the team together at the very start.

“We had a big problem.”

In the first second or third day, water froze inside the pipes and we ran out of drinkable water for two days. This meant we couldn’t use the toilet or cook for two days because all our food was dehydrated – it was really an emergency.

“During that emergency the team changed, and started to see each other as a family. So from there they started to really work and we had a happy ending.”

The Mars Desert Research Station officially began operations in 2001 as a fully-volunteer enterprise, which is now in its 16th field season.

To date, over 1,000 people have participated as crew members at the habitat, and many are now involved in other analog studies at different locations around the world.

Read more about the Mars Desert Research Station here.

Read: An Irish doctor has been picked by NASA to live under the sea

Read: NASA scientists to spend eight months in Hawaiian dome for ‘Mars simulation’

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