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Mars simulation researchers on final stretch of long-haul mission -

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ELIZABETH JACKSON: US-based researchers are looking at the psychological effects of space travel.

They're in the home stretch of a long-running isolation study that aims to replicate a mission to Mars.

Six aspiring astronauts have spent almost eight months now confined to a dome on the slopes of a Hawaiian volcano.

Liz Hobday reports.

LIZ HOBDAY: The Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii is rocky and inhospitable, almost like Mars, and it's home to one of the strangest projects on Earth.

The study is called HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) and Martha Lenio is the mission commander.

MARTHA LENIO: You look out the window and there's no green stuff. There's no trees, there's no habitation, really, that you can see. It's just rocks; lava rocks everywhere. So it does look like Mars when you look out the window.

LIZ HOBDAY: Dr Lenio and five other scientists have spent months confined to a space just 11 metres across, examining how astronauts might sleep, eat, and cope with each other on a long-haul space trip.

They're almost self-sufficient, relying on solar power, food drops and limited communication with the outside world.

Dr Lenio has recorded her experience for the ABC.

MARTHA LENIO: The main point of the HI-SEAS study is to figure out how to pick a crew that works well together, that's able to stay positive, happy, productive, cohesive through a long-duration isolated mission.

LIZ HOBDAY: The current HI-SEAS crew entered the dome last October. For the most part, their mission has been a success. But the last six weeks have been a challenge.

MARTHA LENIO: We've had a few, I guess, rather difficult bouts of depression from a couple of crew members. So I guess just being supportive and working through that required, I guess, having a few team conversations.

LIZ HOBDAY: Dr Kim Binsted from the University of Hawaii is the principal investigator on the HI-SEAS mission.

Dr Binsted says space crews need highly competent members with stable personalities - and so far the dome crew stacks up.

KIM BINSTED: What we're trying to do is to look at how crew cohesion and crew member psychology evolves over time. So far, they're being very competent and stable.

LIZ HOBDAY: The crew has coped with malfunctioning power systems and simulated radiation storms - all the while recording their psychological responses.

They're also working on personal projects that could be useful in space, such as 3D printing and growing food under artificial light.

A surprisingly big issue for humans on long-haul space journeys is what's on the menu. With day after day of freeze-dried meals, astronauts can lose their appetites and become depressed.

Martha Lenio says HI-SEAS wants to change that.

MARTHA LENIO: We had really great sushi. Pizza night is always a success; that's one of our do-overs. Burger night, barbeque night.

LIZ HOBDAY: The researchers go outside in space suits to take rock samples and maintain their equipment, just as real astronauts would on a trip to Mars.

NASA hopes to send humans to Mars in the 2030s but the red planet is so far away, a Mars mission would take about three years.

The HI-SEAS researchers will emerge from the place they call "dome sweet dome" next month.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Liz Hobday with that report.