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Northwestern study of analog crews in isolation reveals weak spots for Mission to Mars

Researchers present on framework for NASA to assemble, support crews at AAAS conference

Northwestern University researchers are developing a predictive model to help NASA anticipate conflicts and communication breakdowns among crew members and head off problems that could make or break the Mission to Mars. 

NASA has formalized plans to send a crewed spacecraft to Mars, a journey that could involve 250 million miles of travel. Among the worldwide teams of researchers toiling over the journey’s inherent physiological, engineering and social obstacles, Northwestern professors Noshir Contractor and Leslie DeChurch, and their collaborators, are charting a new course with a series of projects focused on the insights from the science of teams and networks. 

In a multiphase study conducted in two analog environments — HERA in the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the SIRIUS mission in the NEK analog located in the Institute for Bio-Medical Problems (IBMP) in Russia — scientists are studying the behavior of analog astronaut crews on mock missions, complete with isolation, sleep deprivation, specially designed tasks and mission control, which mimics real space travel with delayed communication. 

Contractor and DeChurch discussed their latest findings and next steps at a 10 a.m. EST, Feb. 17 press briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. 

 

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Meet the researchers

Leslie DeChurch

Leslie DeChurch
dechurch@northwestern.edu

Professor of Communication Studies in Northwestern's School of Communication and Director of the ATLAS Lab (Advancing Teams, Leaders, and Systems)

Noshir Contractor

Noshir Contractor
nosh@northwestern.edu

Jane S. & William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in  Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering, School of Communication and Kellogg School of Management; and  Director of SONIC Research Group

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HERA - Human Exploration Research Analog

HERA is an analog mission by NASA. Based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas, the mission produces effects on the body similar to those experienced in space.

Photo credit: NASA

HERA
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HERA is a unique three-story habitat designed to serve as an analog for isolation, confinement and remote conditions in exploration scenarios

People in front of HERA
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HERA crew members before they ingress for their mission simulation.

Mars photos

Photo credit: NASA

Mars
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NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope photographed Mars on July 18, near its closest approach to Earth since 2003.

Mars
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Farewell to Mars: MarCO-B, one of the experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, took this image of Mars from about 4,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) away during its flyby of the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2018.

Mars
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NASA's First Image of Mars from a CubeSat: NASA's MarCO mission was designed to find out if briefcase-sized spacecraft called CubeSats could survive the journey to deep space. Now, MarCO – which stands for Mars Cube One – has Mars in sight.

Professor DeChurch's ATLAS lab

Photo credit: Northwestern University

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