Isolation affects people in different ways. Studies on how humans cope with stress in a secluded environment and with little social interaction are useful to learn about ourselves in challenging times – and to test whether our species is fit for long journeys to other planets.
An international crew began a 240-day journey of voluntary seclusion in November at the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow, Russia. The SIRIUS-21 mission simulates a lunar expedition, including a Moon landing and a spacewalk, without ever leaving four locked chambers on Earth.

For eight months, volunteers are deprived of natural daylight and fresh air, and can only communicate with ground control and family via audio contact or email from a mockup spacecraft.

“Almost everybody can relate to prolonged periods of isolation nowadays. This is a great opportunity for European researchers to better understand human behaviour, health and performance,” says Angelique Van Ombergen, ESA coordinator for the research.

The crew of five is taking part in dozens of research studies on neuroscience, psychology, and immunology. Four European experiments are collecting scientific data on decision-making, performance and changes in the brain.

Stress, performance and teamwork

Long confinement has an impact on team dynamics, performance and health. The ATHLETE experiment is looking at the physical and psychosocial changes taking place during and after the mission.

The science team is collecting saliva samples, video logs and questionnaires to track how variations in oxytocin and self-perception fluctuate during the different phases of the simulated mission, among other things.

Results will help refine mission training, so that astronauts can cope with the demanding space environment and have a smooth adaptation back to their lives in society.

Altered brain

Our brain experiences changes under prolonged isolation and confinement. Alterations in how humans perceive the space around them, relate to others, and react to critical situations are at the heart of the BRAIVE experiment.

The study investigates a whole range of parameters on the structure and function of the brain using resonance imaging (MRI scans), cognitive tests and blood and saliva samples. Results will help identify the detrimental effects and the underlying mechanisms in an effort to mitigate risks during exploration missions.

Isolation resolutions

Spending eight months cut off from the world can also have an impact on decision-making. The PArADiGM study follows the crew’s decisions through computer tests, questionnaires and biomarkers on circadian rhythms regulation, sleep and stress.

Results of the experiment will help ease the decision-making processes and come up with coping strategies to overcome difficulties.

Piloting performance

Astronauts on space missions need to pilot their spacecraft and conduct complex operations months or even years after their training on Earth. A virtual reality setup of a spacecraft cockpit combined with eye and hand-tracking technologies is putting the crew’s piloting performance to the test.

SIRIUS participants will dock a Russian spacecraft to a module orbiting the Moon in different flight scenarios using a high-fidelity spacecraft simulator.

The SIMSKILL-VRexperiment analyses the piloting skills of each participant throughout the mission. Scientists expect a decrease in performance due to the degradation of both cognitive and motor skills based on previous studies ran in Antarctica.

The results will contribute to find solutions for flight safety, such as refresher courses for critical tasks and extra pilot training.