Off-world colony simulation reveals changes in human communication over time with Earth

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 public domain
Elton John once sang that Mars was "not the kind of place you want to raise your children". However, space agencies around the world hope to prove him wrong one day by sending the first human to the Red Planet and possibly colonizing other moons or planets.

The journey requires that the explorers not only survive on a frozen planet without breathable air, but also live in isolation like no other human explorers.

Mars is only 55m from Earth. This makes communication delays and supply problems between the two planets impossible. Crew members must be able to deal with stressful situations by themselves with very limited resources onboard.

Scientists have turned to terrestrial experiments in order to test how astronauts handle such difficulties, as there is no way to conduct a space trial. Mars-500, a previous isolation experiment, revealed that participants had a psychological disconnect from mission control. This raised concerns about resistance by future crews operating in deep space.

Two additional isolation experiments, dubbed SIRIUS, were performed in 2017 and 2019. They were carried out in a facility in Moscow with international crews of mixed gender. These missions examined the effects of confinement and isolation on human psychology, biology, and team dynamics in order to prepare for long-duration space exploration.

Can you hear me, hello?

Researchers have now published a paper in Frontiers in Biology describing how crew communication with the outside world in these experiments decreased over time. This caused friction at first, which eventually led to cohesion.

"Crews on such missions tend to reduce communication with mission control during isolation and share their needs and problems more often," Dr. Dmitry Shved of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and also the author of the study, said.

"The rare bursts were visible during mission events (eg landing simulator). There was also a convergence in communication styles among all SIRIUS crew members and an increase of crew cohesion during their mission. This was despite the fact that the crew composition was varied by gender and cultural background with many individual differences.

The crew's behavior was measured in a variety of ways, including the recording of video recordings that captured facial expressions and speech audio characteristics (intensity and frequency of speech) and their speech acoustic characteristics.

The researchers recorded 320 audio conversations lasting over 11 hours with outside observers during SIRIUS-19. This was in the first ten days. This number dropped to 34 conversations that lasted 77 minutes over the final 10 days.

An artificial delay in communications was introduced 11 days into the experiment. It was similar to the experience of those who live on Mars, the moon and other distant planets. In the four-month period, the number and frequency of video messages to mission control dropped from 200 to 115 in the first week of isolation to between 120 and 120 over the following four months. These videos also had a significantly shorter duration.

These conditions led to differences in communication among men and women. Women showed more joy than men, and more sadness than men.

The authors noted that while there were differences between the SIRIUS-19 male and female crews in communication style and content during their first month of isolation and then over the course of the experiment these differences were smoothed."

Future colonists will be encouraged

Shved says, "Our findings demonstrate that crews are psychologically autonomous in autonomous conditions and become less dependent upon mission control."

"Also crews living in such conditions tends to increase their cohesion because crew members become closer to one another despite any cultural or personal differences." These phenomena are promising for future explorations of the solar system, or for teams working on Earth in isolation.

Shved and his colleagues are looking to the future. They plan to analyze more data from SIRIUS-21, the latest isolation experiment that began on November 4, this year. He said that this will help overcome the limitations of such rare experiments, which have a limited sample size.

Shved stated that "our findings raise serious questions that must be considered [before sending crews on Mars]".

"The most promising thing is that the crews appear to be more autonomous and independent of Earth." Crew cohesion is expected to help them deal with different problems on their mission.

Russia has six Moon flight simulators available.

Further information: Natalia Supolkina et. al., External Communication of Autonomous Crews under Simulation of Interplanetary Missions Frontiers in Physiology (2021). Information from Frontiers in Physiology Natalia Supolkina et., External Communication of Autonomous Crews under Simulation of Interplanetary Missions. (2021). DOI: 10.3389/fphys.2021.751170