NASA studies Antarcticans ahead of space travel plans

Training camp set up on the foot hills of Mt Erebus near McMurdo Station (NASA)
Training camp set up on the foot hills of Mt Erebus near McMurdo Station (NASA)

Stuck in close quarters, with only what you've brought with you, in one of the most inhospitable places known to man.

The similarities between Mars and Antarctica have drawn NASA's attention and will be the focus of a new study.

NASA's Lisa Spence says the extreme environment and isolation of the icy continent makes it perfect.

"You can't walk off the ice. That goes for whether you're having a health, behavioural health or a personal issue - you're not going anywhere."

It's a struggle those lifting off would have to work through too - once starting a trip to Mars, there's no backing out.

"It changes your mindset about how you are going to respond when you know you can't leave," Ms Spence says.

The difficulties of working down in Antarctica have been well-documented. To say the environment is extreme is almost an understatement, with incredible winds and an average temperature ranging between -49degC and -26degC.

Winter, when the sun dips below the horizon and isn't seen for months, is even rougher. Anyone staying on the ice has to first pass rigorous psychological testing.

NASA will be studying around 110 people located at both the South Pole and the US McMurdo Station, in collaboration with the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

The volunteers' sleeping cycles will be monitored, as well as periodically completing questionnaires and providing saliva samples.

Lauren Leveton, Ph.D., of NASA's Behavioral Performance team says together the information will help them make a checklist which can be used for more than just space travel.

By helping recognise signs and symptoms a behavioural condition is developing, it can also be effective for people such as those deployed in the military.

Medical personnel will also be deployed in the study, in order to give them a chance to practice in an extreme environment.

"Not only are NASA's flight surgeons gaining a better understanding of the [extreme] environment of the astronauts they work with, but NSF's Antarctic clinics will have additional onsite medical expertise," Ms Spence says.

The study is set to start in February 2017 and will last through the winter season.