NUI Galway PhD student commands Mars exploration experiment

7 Mar 2017

Crew 172 exploring the Utah desert outside the MDRS. Image: Nicholas McCay

NUI Galway PhD student Ilaria Cinelli was named the commander of a mission to explore the surface of Mars, or rather, a simulated one in the Utah desert.

With SpaceX and NASA keen to see humans set foot on Mars in the coming decade, the need to get humans ready for exploring its surface is becoming increasingly important.

This preparation was recently put in the hands of the team led by bioengineer Ilaria Cinelli, who was selected as the commander of Crew 172 aboard the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in the deserts of Utah last December.

The Italian researcher is currently undertaking her PhD studies at NUI Galway in the College of Engineering and Informatics. She was selected as emerging space leader of the Mars mission thanks to her extracurricular activities in this field.

Operated by the Mars Society, the MDRS is a full-scale analogue facility designed to replicate the environment that astronauts will experience on Mars if a colony is established.

Between December and January, Cinelli led an international crew of six people under the constraints of a simulated Mars mission over four weeks.

This means that a limited amount of supplies – including what the crew could grow aboard the MDRS – and a lack of access to the outside world.

Great progress was made

Since its inception in 2001, the volunteer enterprise has seen 1,000 eager researchers take part in the experiment, taking their findings to other research labs across the world.

As commander, Cinelli measured the impact of human behaviour among her crew, brought about by living in the confines of such a small space, and minimal contact with family and friends.

Over the course of the four weeks, Cinelli’s research showed a marked improvement in the crew’s performance in their development, increased confidence in performance, a greater resistance to stress, increased internal control and social growth.

Image of the MDRS taken by Crew 172. Image: Mars Society/Facebook

Commenting on the Mars mission, Cinelli said: “Extreme conditions were created due to the limited amount of resources available such as food, water, electricity and Wi-Fi.

“The mission was the first for most of the crew who had never experienced living in such an extreme environment before. They made great progress throughout the mission by stepping outside of their comfort zone, overcoming stress, increasing control and overall performance.”

The Irish connection with the MDRS mission continued with Crew 173, which included STEM advocate, artist and engineer Dr Niamh Shaw.

Updated, 2.01pm, 7 March 2017: This article was updated to clarify that the Mars mission has already taken place.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic