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Living on Mars in Moscow

If you're the type of commuter who starts to sweat inside a crowded subway car, just reading about the latest development of the Mars500 project may be enough to make your stomach queasy. Today, six astronauts sealed themselves off in a space ship simulator "destined" for Mars, marking the first of 520 days they will spend shut off from the world around them. (To fully appreciate the claustrophobia they will endure, note that the "Habitable Module" where they will live is a mere 20m long.) Their mission is part of a project at Moscow's Institute for Biomedical Problems designed to study the effects of space travel to the mysterious Red Planet, where so far only robotic feet have tread.

Technically speaking, the team's journey is even shorter than your commute: all 18 months of the project will take place inside a stationary craft at the Institute. This fact constrains the mission in a few important ways. For one thing, the crew won't actually experience the feeling of weightlessness. (Apparently for some this isn't the only lure of becoming an astronaut.) But scientists have gone out of their way to ensure that the simulation is as realistic as possible. The project will include a month of "surface operations" in which three crew members will enter the craft's so-called "surface module," a chamber that mimics the conditions on Mars.

Lest the remaining 490 days seem too terrestrial, the project's organizers have taken additional measures to enhance the authenticity of the experience. For one thing, the astronauts "will have to cope with limited consumables." (Read: they'll be hungry.) In addition, their one mode of communication with the outside world-email-takes the "instant" out of instant messaging. Scientists say they will simulate a 20 minute delay in email exchange-what they would expect if the astronauts were millions of miles (instead of just a few feet) away. Sounds like a throwback to the days of dial-up to me.

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

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