Inside the SIRIUS-19 lunar mission simulation: preparing for the next leap
As the world prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, a 4-month long international lunar mission simulation is preparing to conclude in Russia. SIRIUS, which stands for Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station, aims to study human psychology and performance under a simulated lunar mission scenario in order to reduce the overall risk on future missions to Earth’s closest neighbor and beyond.
The SIRIUS-19 mission is being carried out in Moscow, Russia using the same facilities as the Mars500 mission conducted from 2007-2011. SIRIUS is jointly operated by the Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences and NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) in cooperation with partner organizations in Russia, Germany, France, Italy, and other countries. The mission comes as new policy initiatives in the United States, Russia, and other countries are proposing the first human missions to the Moon since 1972.
A diverse and experienced crew
The international crew consists of six members led by veteran Russian cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin serving as Crew Commander. Russian Crew Surgeon Stephania Fedeye, Mission Specialist and Crew Journalist Anastasia Stepanova, and Crew Engineer Daria Zhidova are joined by American Mission Specialists Allen Mirkadyrov and Reinhold Povilaitis.
The crew members for SIRIUS 19 were selected based on their career experience, skills, and personality to gauge their suitability for the program. Crew Engineer Zhidova works in the test flight department of Energia, the leading Russian aerospace and rocketry corporation. Crew Surgeon Fedyay and Mission Specialist Stepanova are both employees for IBMP where they work as a scientist and engineer, respectively. American Mission Specialist Povilaitis is a materials engineer working as a research analyst for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) and Mission Specialist Mirkadyrov works as an aerospace engineer at NASA Goaddard Space Flight Center.
In addition to Commander Tarelkin’s spaceflight experience as a Flight Engineer for ISS Expedition 33/34 from 2012-2013, some crew members have prior mission simulation experience as well. Mirkadyrov served on the 8 month long HI-SEAS III mission from 2014-2015. Povilaitis was a crew member on the NASA HERA XIV mission (Human Exploration Research Analog). Stepanova is a veteran of The Mars Society’s Mars 160 Twin Analog Mission conducted at the organization’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah and Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station in the Canadian arctic.
Preparing for extended lunar exploration
SIRIUS is modeled as a lunar mission that is focused on selecting a site for a future lunar settlement and reproduces four main phases of the mission including traveling to the Moon, orbiting the Moon, landing on the Moon, and returning to Earth. Countermeasures to risks identified during the simulation will be developed, validated, and implemented first on the International Space Station (ISS) and ultimately on future missions to the Moon and beyond. Appropriately, the SIRIUS mission incorporates elements from currently proposed mission architectures with the crew spending the majority of their time on a space station orbiting the Moon.
For cosmonaut and Crew Commander Tarelkin, the simulation is a change of pace from his mission to the ISS.
“The challenge is to convince the crew and myself that we are in space. It is hard to fool my mind after being in real spaceflight,” Tarelkin said of his biggest challenge of the mission.
Despite the differences between real spaceflight and a mission simulation on Earth, Tarelkin notes there are some similarities.
“The air sampling for analyzing the growth of bacteria and mushrooms research, and the psychological surveys are exactly the same as we did on ISS.”
IBMP is also behind many of the human-studies experiments that are operated on the ISS, which allows them to compare their simulation data to the observed impact of spaceflight on crew members in space – an important connection if you’re wanting to use simulation data to influence future mission design. This also isn’t the first simulation for IBMP. The facility SIRIUS uses, NEK, was built for the IBMP-operated Mars500 simulation that culminated in 2011.
Daily life in isolation
The crew has lived out their daily activities in the hermetically-sealed NEK facility housed in a cavernous room at IBMP. For the crew, daily life on the mission has been structured with over 80 experiments to run and a multitude of psychological and physiological exams to conduct. Even the limited down time is structured and exercise constitutes a major component of their daily routine.
Meals are also planned, in part to help control variables for experiments on the crew, but to also mimic the packaged meals that are a staple on the ISS and likely on future deep space missions.
“In the SIRIUS mission, all meals are pre-scheduled and pre-prepared for the crew,” says Mirkadyrov. “All the crew has to do is to look at the day’s schedule, pick up the required food for all three meals, and add water to most of the freeze-dried food as required.”
The design of the habitat itself also plays a major role in the experiments, with the design laid out and even the interior decorating selected based on what is likely to best serve the crew on a long-duration mission. Crew Journalist Stepanova described the station in a correspondence with SpaceFlight Insider:
“The air pressure is 3 percent less than atmospheric to sustain autonomy, therefore it is preventing the dust particles and outside atmosphere from entering the module. A LED bio rhythmic controlled lighting system has been developed and installed to ensure an optimal psycho-physiological state of a person. The station [is] equipped with a digital video surveillance system consisting of 84 cameras. Also, the systems for maintaining the composition of the atmosphere and for supplying oxygen and nitrogen in the modules has been improved after the last big isolation experiment “Mars-500”.
“[The] station consists of four modules (the numbers represents their volume): 250, 150, 100, 50. Warehouse, gym with scientific sport equipment, shower, toilet and greenhouse are located in module 250. Crew quarters, living room, kitchen and toilet are in module 150. Module 100 or another name is medical module usually only used for blood sampling, ECG tests, and docking with space station and moon rover simulators.
“Module 50 is connected to 150 and to Moon surface hangar. It simulates two purposes: cargo ship and moon lander. During isolation this module is closed. We are allowed to open it when a cargo ship arrives, once in every month to unload food supply, equipment and delivery from psychological support with some tasty rare food from home. Then we close this module.”
Simulating a lunar landing
As with the Mars500 mission, a critical component of SIRIUS involved simulating a landing and excursion onto the Moon’s surface.
“When the time comes for moon landing the 50 module opened again and four crew members stay there for seven days,” said Stepanova in describing the simulated landing. “The simulated Moon surface is a hangar (80 square meters) with Virtual Reality technology. It provides the immersive EVA experience where astronauts walk on the Moon, work with scientific equipment, chip away the pieces of moon rock and repair rover. For seven days four crew members landed and stayed at the Moon, performed four EVAs lasting an hour each.”
The seven day stay on the lunar surface is longer than the short surface excursion simulated in Mars500, but it takes a realistic approach to how the initial missions back to the Moon may pan out. Landing parties may spend only a few days to perhaps a few weeks on the surface at a time until a permanent habitat is established, after which surface stays may well be measured in months or longer.
Getting serious about simulations
SIRIUS is not alone in the quest to better understand the psychology of crews in confined habitats on long duration missions. With such an experienced crew, including a veteran cosmonaut, the similarities and differences between SIRIUS and other recent mission simulations are hard to ignore. While the NEK facility housing the SIRIUS crew is designed for isolation-focused studies, some of the other missions the crew have been involved with have involved field analog components as well.
Perhaps most closely related in habitat design and mission objectives are NASA’s HERA missions. The controlled settings of SIRIUS and HERA allow researchers to more directly isolate variables related to crew health and, most critically, to habitat design. Even something as benign as wall materials and color could play a role in determining how successful crew members will be in executing the mission. For SIRIUS, the interior design of the modules was made prior to the Mars500 mission, with wood panel walls being selected by psychologists at the time as likely to be more appealing for crew members than other color and material combinations.
Reinhold Povilaitis served on the HERA XIV crew and noted that while the two sims share many of the same science objectives, there are some differences in his experience on SIRIUS. “The three biggest differences are that SIRIUS has an international crew, the habitat itself is much larger, and its duration is significantly longer than the asteroid-landing sim I took part in.”
Other recent simulations have tried to focus on other mission elements by incorporating field analogs into their mission design. HI-SEAS, which was funded in part through a NASA grant, carried out a series of Mars mission simulations ranging from 4 months up to a year from 2013 to 2018, before announcing a shift to lunar simulations late in 2018. The volcanic landscape of the island is reminiscent of both Mars and the Moon allowing for EVA’s to be conducted to simulate various elements of surface operations.
Mirkadyrov noted many differences between his experiences at HI-SEAS and SIRIUS, from the day to day crew schedule being more structured for SIRIUS right down to habitat design and operation. “The crew at HI-SEAS was able (to an extent) to control their temperature inside the dome, whereas the SIRIUS crew has to depend on the engineering team supporting the mission to fix and troubleshoot any environmental issues that may arise.”
Long duration simulations of up to 4 months have also been carried out at The Mars Society’s twin analog research stations in the Utah desert and the Canadian arctic on Devon Island with a focus on studying crew dynamics within the context of field exploration-driven simulations.
“We had a beautiful, inspiring red desert, challenging EVA’s, one big goal to “find life” and very limited resources,” Stepanova said of her experience as a crew member for The Mars Society’s Mars 160 simulation. “Basically we skipped the 8-month voyage to Mars and straight away started to work on the surface. Whereas in SIRIUS-19, we simulated the flight itself in a confined space but with resupply from Earth every month, so therefore the resources are not as limited.”
The next step beyond SIRIUS
When asked by SpaceFlight Insider how many of the crew members would travel to the Moon (or Mars) if given the chance, the answer was a universal yes to one or both destinations. However Daria Zhidova had a more measured response.
“With the current technology and capabilities, unambiguously – to the Moon. Until we rehearse everything on the Moon, I won’t step on the Martian surface,” Zhidova said when given the option of traveling to one or both worlds. “It’s not far to fly to the Moon; if we encounter any mishaps, our chances of survival are still very large.”
With the current realignment of space policy objectives in the United States and elsewhere, Zhidova’s preferred scenario seems the most likely to play out. Technologies that could one day apply to a future Mars mission are likely to be tested at the proposed Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and subsequent surface missions to be launched from there.
SIRIUS-19 is scheduled to conclude this week on July 19, the day before the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The crew will step out of their habitat and take their first breath of fresh, non-recylced air for the first time in over 120 days. Even though the simulation is not the first isolation experience (on Earth or in space) for many of the crew members, there are still things that they have missed about life in the outside world that they will be eagerly awaiting as they reflect on their completed mission.
“My favorite part is the end of the mission,” Tarelkin says with laughter. “I miss my kids.”
Scientific Coordinator for the SIRIUS program, Dr. Sergey Ponomarev, is optimistic with the final outcome of the mission. “The crew feels good and is interested in the mission tasks,” Ponomarev says of the mission’s progress. As for what’s next, the SIRIUS-19 mission represents one component of a broader program. “From my point of view, at the end of the 4-month mission all studies will [have been] performed and we will slowly move to the future 8 month and 1 year missions.”
SIRIUS-19 Crew Journalist Anastasia Stepanova conducted crew interviews during the simulation and contributed to this article
Paul is currently a graduate student in Space and Planetary Sciences at the University of Akransas in Fayetteville. He grew up in the Kansas City area and developed an interest in space at a young age at the start of the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions in 2003. He began his studies in aerospace engineering before switching over to geology at Wichita State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science in 2013. After working as an environmental geologist for a civil engineering firm, he began his graduate studies in 2016 and is actively working towards a PhD that will focus on the surficial processes of Mars. He also participated in a 2-week simluation at The Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station in 2014 and remains involved in analogue mission studies today. Paul has been interested in science outreach and communication over the years which in the past included maintaining a personal blog on space exploration from high school through his undergraduate career and in recent years he has given talks at schools and other organizations over the topics of geology and space. He is excited to bring his experience as a geologist and scientist to the Spaceflight Insider team writing primarily on space science topics.