Penn Med researcher studies stress and fatigue during simulated Mars mission


A Penn Medicine professor is leading a team of scientists who will monitor a six-man international crew on a simulated mission to Mars.

David Dinges, professor of psychology in psychiatry and chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology in Penn Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, will monitor the crew members’ rest-activity cycles, performance and psychological responses to determine the extent to which sleep loss, fatigue, stress, mood changes and conflicts occur during the mission.

The six-man crew entered an isolation chamber in Moscow on June 3 for a simulated 520-day Mars mission conducted by the State Scientific Center of the Russian Federation – Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The crew has a mission schedule calling for more than 90 experiments and realistic scenarios, including emergency situations, 20-minute communications delays and a trip to the martian surface.

The crew will wear miniaturized wristwatch-like devices that measure sleep-wake patterns and researchers will use specially programmed computers with brief assessment tests to gather information throughout the mission on the crew members’ performance and emotions. Dinges’ collaborators on the project include Mathias Basner, assistant professor of sleep and chronobiology in psychiatry at Penn Medicine.

The mission, supported by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, will allow scientists to find out whether the ability to sleep well, attend to tasks, react quickly, maintain positive moods and feel alert is sustainable during such a long mission, and whether there is evidence of negative moods, depression and an increase in conflicts.

“This simulated Mars mission is by far the longest-duration study of crew confinement under operating conditions attempted to date. It will have an impact on planning for exploration missions,” says Dinges. “It provides something we can’t learn from much shorter-duration simulations or from the 180-day stays on the space station: namely, what is the effect on crews of living and working for 520 days in continuous confinement?”

To read a Philadelphia Inquirer article about the simulated mission, click here, and to read more from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, click here.

Originally published on June 3, 2010