Vital Signs

The closest thing on Earth to a mission to Mars

Editor’s Note: Vital Signs is a monthly program bringing viewers health stories from around the world.

Story highlights

Scientists are using Antarctica to research effects of long space missions

"You're so far removed it feels like you're standing on another planet," says Alex Kumar, who has worked there

Living there brings challenges of isolation, lack of daylight and stress

CNN  — 

The buildings lie at the southern-most tip of the Earth, on a plateau 3,200 meters above sea level. Other than their occupants, the nearest human beings are 600 kilometers away, making it more remote than the International Space Station.

Four months of the year there is complete darkness – all day, every day.

This is the Concordia research station in Antarctica, a French-Italian facility, where up to 16 people live for one year in complete isolation – all in the name of science.

Concordia is Earth’s closest analogue to long-term space missions, making it home for various scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA). Their eventual goal? A manned mission to Mars.

“By watching how the human body and mind adapts in Antarctica, we can plan and predict what would happen in space,” says Alex Kumar, a doctor with the National Institute for Health Research, in the UK.

Kumar has visited Concordia twice to date, for both the ESA and the White Mars project, and spoke of his experiences at the recent World Extreme Medicine Expo in London. The effects of stress, changes in immunity and adapting to darkness are just a few of the challenges being explored.

The ESA is using the Concordia, and Antarctica as a whole, to reveal how well the human body will cope on the long journey to Mars.

Read: The NASA diet: Food, but not as we know it

A return mission to Mars is expected to take two to three years.

Darkness, isolation and hostility

“Antarctica is the windiest, highest, driest continent on Earth,” says Kumar, who has felt the effects of living there on both his mind and his body.

“You’re cut off from the rest of the world and in winter, completely cut off as no flights go in or out,” he adds.

Alex Kumar in Antarctica.

Multiple factors make Concordia similar to a journey into outer space, including the long time in confinement, abnormal day and light cycles, extremely dry air, low oxygen levels, limited supplies, no access to services, and general exposure to danger. But according to Kumar, one of the most difficult aspects is the everyday monotony.

“There’s no variation in the environment, it’s dark, it’s white, and it’s bland. It’s monotonous and people really underestimate that,” says Kumar. The environment lacks any sounds, smells, or sights to keep the mind stimulated. So far, the main solution has been exercise but Kumar used writing and photography to keep his brain occupied and free of the effects of sensory deprivation.

“You’re so far removed it feels like you’re standing on another planet,” says Kumar.

NASA teams have previously used this southern expanse of ice to prepare their astronauts and scientists. “It’s good to experiment there,” says Mike Barratt, physician astronaut at NASA, who once spent six days living in a cave to gain insight into the impact of isolation.

“The psychological effects are huge,” says Barratt. These typically manifest themselves as depression and psychosis from the extreme isolation. When surrounded by such baroness, with no recognizable features, people can be left feeling distant and alone. “That sense of isolation is strong,” he says.

Astronauts eventually undertaking a Mars mission would be expected to spend two years or more in confined and harsh environments, so any changes in the brain and its behavior will be crucial to gauge before the journey.

Footage courtesy of ESA - European Space Agency

Non-stop jet lag

The lack of daylight when wintering in Antarctica can wreak havoc on the body clock, which uses daylight to maintain its 24-hour cycle. When daylight is removed, the body goes haywire.

“Your hormones start to get misplaced and this causes chaos switching you from Los Angeles to Timbuktu to Fiji time zones week by week,” says Kumar, who is also a research fellow at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

Such disruption can lead to people stopping eating and their brain no longer functioning effectively.

The conditions bring other problems: When placed in this stark, cold environment, the body becomes stressed and adapts to manage this – with dramatic consequences.

“When you confine people and put them in a stressed environment you see immune changes,” says Barratt. Astronauts are checked and quarantined prior to spaceflight to overcome this, but long-duration space flight could see new situations arising. “There are a lot of immune factors that change,” says Barratt.

Kumar has seen people’s health change dramatically over the Antarctic winter as their hearts struggle to cope and stress levels go up. He hopes to find out why this takes place and one day prevent it from happening. “That’s a major aim of Antarctic research,” says Kumar. “If we can find counter measures against both cognitive decline and physiological change that can be adapted to help people reach Mars.”

Gravity gets in the way

But one factor in space flight that’s missing in Antarctica is the lack of gravity. Two NASA astronauts are currently exploring the impact of zero gravity for long periods of time in a one year mission on the International Space Station (ISS), which began in March 2015. But with prolonged time in space comes greater risk, such as exposure to solar radiation, which makes Antarctica a safer – and closer – option for larger scale research.

Barratt formerly ran NASA’s human research program and the first of his two journeys into space was for just over six months. “There’s not a whole lot you can do to prepare for zero gravity,” he says.

In terms of preparation, Kumar thinks Antarctica may be enough. As he puts it: “Ultimately it’s the same as space – you have a small group of people stuck in a tin can.”