SIRIUS-21: how MAI PhD Student and 11 other candidates are preparing for an interplanetary flight experiment
On November 4, the third stage of the SIRIUS international isolation experiment begins in the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The aim of the experiment is to reduplicate the main characteristics of the promising interplanetary expedition to the Moon. Volunteers will spend 240 days in isolation. Among the candidates there is Oleg Blinov, the head of the department of complex simulators for promising cargo spacecraft of the Cosmonaut Training Center (CTC) named after Yury Gagarin, post-graduate student of Moscow Aviation Institute.
The essence of the experiment is that six volunteers will play out the scenario of the eight-month expedition to the moon: the flight itself, the orbit time, lunary landing and moonwalk, going back home. On the way, the crew members will control the spacecraft, dockings, grow herbs and vegetables, run on the athletic track, and much more.
The names of the experimenters who will have to forget about earthly affairs for eight months and plunge headlong into the atmosphere of the space flight will be known just a few days before the launch. In the meantime, all the 12 candidates, like real crews flying during the pandemic, are now on quarantine. Half of all applicants are Russians, four more are US citizens, and the remaining two came from the United Arab Emirates.
The organizers intend to make the crew gender balanced: it will consist of three men and three women. The participant from the Middle East Muslim country will surely contribute to the experiment. During the real-time space flight all the cosmonauts will have to communicate despite the cultural or other differences.
The ground experimental complex (GEC), which for 240 days will turn into the island of life for six enthusiasts in the middle of the vast ocean of space, consists of four modules with a total area of more than 180 square meters. Among the available means of communication there are video sessions with the experiment control center, however, the conversation will occur with a delay, as if the crew were really moving away from the Earth. But in terms of communication with the loved ones, the conditions are even tougher than on the ISS. It will only be possible to communicate via emails with them.
Each member of the SIRIUS-21 crew is allowed to take no more than 5 kg of personal items on board.
Applications from all around the globe
The SIRIUS-21 scientific program lists about 70 experiments, including five of them (psychological and physiological) declared by the Arab side.
“In the course of organizing the project, we cooperated closely with the Cosmonaut Training Center and RSC “Energia,” explained Mark Belakovsky, First Deputy Head - Chief Project Manager. – A number of space organizations have also expressed their interest. Among foreign partners, the European – French, German space agencies – colleagues from Japan, Belgium and other countries traditionally participate in the SIRIUS scientific program. For the first time, the Space Center named after Mohammed bin Rashid from the United Arab Emirates is taking part."
SIRIUS (Scientific International Research In Unique terrestrial Station – Scientific international research in a unique terrestrial complex) is a joint project of the IBMP and the Human Research Program (human research program) of NASA, within which research is carried out related to the preparation of further human exploration of space.
There are four phases of SIRIUS program. Two of them have already passed: the 17-day isolation in 2017, in which the Russians and the representative of the Federal Republic of Germany participated, and the 4-month imitation of a flight to the moon in 2019, when the crew included our Russian experimenters and US citizens.
On November 4, there will be the third phase of the project starts - 8-month isolation. In the future, another experiment is planned.
According to the scenario, the SIRIUS-21 crew first will be in the low-earth orbit, then they will set the course to the Moon. After flying around the satellite, the team will land and make several exits to the surface. The effect of being on the Moon will be created using the unique stand with an adaptive suspension system that simulates low gravity. In combination with VR technologies, this will allow, as realistically as it is possible on Earth, to transfer SIRIUS participants to the surface of the Moon.
The flight to the Moon and back will take about a week. And the longest period will be spent in a circumlunar orbit. At this time, the crew will use a 3D printer to create instruments and satellites for exploring the Moon, control robotic systems, perform docking and other maneuvers.
“There are different control tasks to be set. For example, the spacecraft is supposed to dock with the ISS and with the prospective lunar space station. And during planetary activities, being in a model of a spacesuit and a VR helmet, which adds the sense of altered gravity, we will walk on the lunar surface and control the rover,” says Oleg Blinov, the candidate to the SIRIUS-21 crew.
From 2012 to 2016, he was in the cosmonaut corps of Roskosmos, then worked as the head of the Vykhod-2 simulator, and now he is the head of the department for the creation of complex simulators for promising cargo ships. The upcoming experiment is of great interest to him. He notes: “In SIRIUS-21, the time ranges of stay in lunar orbit are specially increased in order to check the psychological state of the crew and more thoroughly work out all stages of the flight. And I am already trying now, during the preparation, to think over the whole process of flying to the moon and back. My current work at the CTC is related to promising developments, and, in addition, I am a postgraduate student at the Moscow Aviation Institute on this topic. So, the experience gained during the 8-month isolation experiment will form the basis of my thesis."
During the preparation to this serious experiment, candidates, like the ISS crews, get acquainted with the techniques and equipment, study instructions, undergo background examinations, do physical education, and go through possible emergency situations.
“We are being prepared for everything. For example, during one of the classes I broke the laptop, changed the processor, the hard drive, memory cards. A long-term loss of connection with the Earth is possible for almost a week, fire, power outages, depressurization. And no matter what happens, we must cope with it,” concludes Oleg Blinov.
No fooling here
Recently, the United Arab Emirates have been conquering the space. One can recall the flight of Hazzaa Al Mansuri on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz MS-15 in 2019, he spent 12 days on the ISS and became the first astronaut representing his country.
“We have the Mars 2117 space program,” said Mohammad Yusuf bin Nashuk, official representative of the Muhammad bin Rashid Space Center in the SIRIUS project. – Our goal is to obtain new knowledge for mankind, technologies for interplanetary flights, which would allow us to make a colony on Mars and on other planets. To achieve this, we need to get the idea of how people will have to live and work on such long flights – and they will be long in the initial stages. Hazzaa Al Mansoori’s flight had significant impact on the vision of the entire space industry among the leaders of our country. Although they have always been interested in this area. And joint programs with organizations such as IBMP, which have history, heritage, and experience, will certainly move us forward."
For future missions
During 8 months of isolation, there will be a lot of research. Even cleaning will become a kind of experiment: special medical devices will be used to see how effective they are and how often they need to be disinfected during a real space flight.
Most of the scientific research (psychological, physiological, medical, etc.) was launched during the first two phases of the SIRIUS isolation experiment (in 2017 and 2019) and will continue to collect statistics. But there are also new ones: for example, aimed at studying the human immune system, its interaction with the intestinal microflora, allergies, reactivation of intracellular viral and bacterial infections.
The food for the crew will be as close to space food as possible. Sublimated food was made specially for this experiment for the whole period of isolation. The diet is elaborated so that it would provide the crew with the required amount of calories, vitamins, proteins, fats, carbohydrates and will be changed once a week.
“According to the legend, two cargo spacecrafts were sent to the lunar orbit in advance. And two deliveries are planned – on the 55th and 115th days of the "flight", but without fresh vegetables and fruits. As part of the experiment, the crew will grow herbs and vegetables in a greenhouse. For interplanetary flights, the creation of your own ecosystem and bioreactors (for the production of oxygen and trace elements) is much more relevant than for orbital flights. So this is a very important study for future missions,” said the executive director of the SIRIUS-21 project, Sergey Ponomarev, Candidate of Medical Science.
The project touches upon issues of hygiene, norms of consumption of clothing and disinfectants. There is a shower in the IBMP Ground Experimental Complex, where the 8-month isolation will take place. At the same time, the issue washing machine installation is now being considered at further stages of the project.
“On interplanetary flights, it would be advisable to put a special washing machine in order to reduce the number of things that you need to take with you. It can be combined with a tumble dryer. There is such a solution in ordinary terrestrial conditions, which means that it can be adapted for space flight. We count very much on our partners from RSC “Energia” and hope that such a machine will be made. It could be tested during the isolation experiments. The aim of the research is to get the feedback from a real user on the long-term operation under the conditions that are as close as possible to the real-time space flight,” says Sergey Ponomarev.
Various training systems are also being tested during the SIRIUS project. Most promising modes from the point of view of biochemical and physiological parameters will be further tested on the ISS, and then included in the prophylaxis system for deep space flights. So, the SIRIUS-21 crew will have active and passive treadmill, two strength simulators (American ARED and another Russian development, which will be launched on the ISS after testing), a bicycle ergometer and a horizontal bar.
Caps and Brodsky
Together with family pictures, postcards and letters, participants will take their favorite books, board games, and talismans with them. NASA candidate William Brown wore the same cap during all his military missions, and the flags of the countries he visited are put on it. Naturally, he will take it with him to the long-term isolation.
The IBMP candidate Victoria Kirichenko also has her "lucky" cap, in which she travels to all starts and landings of the ISS crews, on all business trips and travels. She will also take her favorite mug and small volume of poems written by Joseph Brodsky, that is always with her when Victoria leaves home for a long time.
The renewed EU-150 “spacecraft” (experimental installation with a volume of 150 cubic meters) is the main module of the GEC, around which the entire "spacecraft" is being built. The crew spends most of their time there. It contains six cabins, a dining room and a wardroom, where the participants of the experiment communicate, watch movies, play board games and relax. In the same module, there is a command post, similar to the command center of the IBMP, from which the complex is controlled. If necessary, the "Earth" can transfer "spacecraft" control to the crew so that it controls all the parameters independently. EU-100 is a so-called medical module. In addition to medical experiments, various equipment is tested here, including the docking systems. Part of the module has been set aside for quarantine: there are two beds for the sick in order to prevent the infection spread.
EU-50 simulates the descent vehicle. When the main "spaceship" is in "lunar orbit", part of the crew will move into this small module, close the hatch and land on the Moon. From this module, testers will be able to move to a surface simulator with a total volume of 1200 cubic meters, where alien activities will be tested. Then, when the research is over, they will again go into orbit and join the main ship.
EU-250 is a cargo module. There are warehouses where various stuff – linen, tools, appliances – is stored. A workshop is also located here: one can fix a device that is out of order here. There is a large gym, a shower room and a greenhouse where lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers are grown using hydroponics (within the framework of the Mars-500 project, they even managed to harvest strawberries). The crew usually transfers part of the harvest to the researchers outside through a special hatch, and eats the rest.
“During the preparation for the third stage of the SIRIUS project, we have made serious changes of the interior. Firstly, a special sound-absorbing coating was placed everywhere, which is hermetically sealed and waterproof. Secondly, they completely replaced the furniture in the wardroom, dining room and command post, and part of the furniture in the cabins. It is functional, modern and environmentally friendly. Major technical changes also have been made. We have replaced the electric motor in the air conditioning system. We installed new filters, which, in addition to harmful substances and trace impurities, now also remove odors. We installed new servers, modernized the communication, which goes automatically with a delay, calculating how far the “ship” is from the Earth. We also installed new fire detectors. Now, on the computer screen in our MCC, we will not only find out that there is smoke or fire, but we will even see where exactly it is,” said Valery Yesin, the technical director of the SIRIUS project.
At the previous stage, a new lighting system was tested – the circadian one. There are 104 lamps in the GEC, and each is a mini-computer that can be controlled from the MCC. Some of the lamps outside the cabins simulate real daylight hours – from dawn to dusk. This is done so that the crew does not lose their biorhythms. As a result of SIRIUS-19, psychologists have already noted the positive effect of such coverage. Now the question of its installation on the ISS is being considered.
As for the lamps in the cabins, the crew members can control the lighting themselves. If necessary, one can change not only the intensivity, but also the spectrum of the glow – to make it, for example, more yellow or blue.
To handle the stress
Despite the large space of the ground-based experimental complex and the presence of each crew member their own cabin, a lot of attention is paid to the psychological aspects of the eight-month "journey".
“First of all, this experiment is aimed at studying the effect of isolation on the person himself. It was under these conditions - in a pressurized facility, in a mixed-gender crew. I, of course, am first of all interested in this influence: how we will interact, cope with stressful situations. Colleagues, who are experienced in isolation experiments, gave me some advice, shared their impressions, and encouraged me. And I am sure that we will be able to pass this test, also due to their experience," – Viktoria Kirichenko, the candidate for the crew, surgeon, junior researcher of the Institute of Biological and Biological Problems, shared her expectations,.
It is obvious that the members of the international crew of the "lunar mission" will represent different cultures and values – with their own characteristics and peculiarities. For example, Russians, as foreigners say, are good at telling funny jokes.
“In my opinion, the difference in our mentality and culture is in fact a big advantage. When you have the “information hunger”, as it will be in our isolation, and at the same time there is someone from another country nearby, he can tell you something new every day. So in this regard, I think we are very lucky. There always will be something to discuss. We, all the twelve people, have already become friends during the preparation, but are not yet so well aware of the traditions and culture of our countries,” notes NASA candidate William Brown.
The prerequisite for participating in the SIRIUS project is a good command of Russian and English. So that the crew members wouldn’t have any problems understanding each other. For example, we talked to William in Russian. When asked why he speaks Russian so well, the American replied: “As a child, I had a Russian friend. His mother spoke only Russian. That is when I started to learn your language. And it is a great honor for me to be in Russia and to participate in this experiment. This is a great opportunity to help develop the space industry and strengthen cooperation between our countries."