The white continent as a stepping stone to the red planet
Submitted by minh on 22 May 2012
By Oli Usher
The tough environment is a constant challenge to the team that lives there year round. Concordia is busy for the short Antarctic summer, when up to 50 staff call the base home. But after the last plane of the season leaves in late February, Concordia is cut off from the world. For the next eight months, the skeleton crew of 12-14 scientists, engineers and support staff are on their own.
“And those people are also in a confined space, in a very harsh environment – of course, the vacuum of space; where the normal day and night cycles are absent, where you have very limited resources, where you have to deal with any emergency that comes up with the resources that you have at hand.”
This goes for the ESA-sponsored researcher too – the latest arrival is Alexander Kumarw3, a British doctor who arrived at Concordia in January 2012.
This regular turnover has allowed for interesting comparisons between different crews. Research on the very first group to spend winter on the base, in 2005, revealed that they generally coped better than those that came after them, perhaps because they had to work together on the big task of finishing the construction and commissioning of the station. This kind of shared objective is an important way of keeping morale up.
Under normal conditions, a surprising amount of our physiology and behaviour follows a circadian (daily) rhythm – not only our sleeping and eating patterns, but also our core body temperature, blood pressure, metabolic rate, brain-wave activity and hormone levels. Our circadian rhythm responds to the regular cycles of light and dark. The lack of an apparent night and day for part of the year, therefore, is a big issue facing the crew of the Concordia, and would face the crew of a Mars mission. too.
Living in a small group in confined spaces also has an effect on the physical health of the station’s crew. The isolation means they get no infections from outside, leading to their immune systems weakening. But at the same time, living at such close quarters means that any infections that are present in the station are soon shared by everyone. One more way in which life at Concordia is similar to life in space.
ESA is a member of EIROforumw7, the publisher of Science in School.
See all ESA-related articles in Science in School.
This article is based on an interview given by Dr Oliver Angerer to the editor-in-chief of Science in School, Dr Eleanor Hayes.
w1 – Find out more about the Concordia Base and the scientific research carried out there.
w2 – Learn more about the Mars500 project.
w3 – Alexander Kumar’s website includes a blog and details of his work.
w4 – For more information on how the human eye perceives colour, see the ‘Neuroscience for kids’ pages on the University of Washington website.
w5 – To learn more about the link between blue light and the circadian rhythm, see the article ‘Bring back the night – your health and wellbeing depend on it’ by neuroscientist Professor Russell Foster on the Guardian website.
w6 – Find out more about ESA.
w7 – EIROforum is a collaboration between eight of Europe’s largest inter-governmental scientific research organisations, which combine their resources, facilities and expertise to support European science in reaching its full potential. As part of its education and outreach activities, EIROforum publishes Science in School.
If you found this article interesting, why not take a look at the full list of articles on science topics published in Science in School?
Oli Usher is a science writer. He has a postgraduate degree in the history and philosophy of science, and has worked in journalism and science communication. He is currently the public information officer for the NASA / ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
This article explains how an investigation of daily life for the crew living at the Concordia research station, on an ice plateau deep in the Antarctic, has enabled scientists to gain a deeper understanding of the implications of long space missions on astronauts’ physical and mental health.
There is a great interdisciplinary potential in this article. At lower secondary-school level it can be used as a starting point for a group discussion around the relationship between science, technology and society. Alternatively, students could list the major health challenges facing astronauts during a space trip, which are referred to in the article, and discuss the solutions presented based on research findings.
For upper secondary-school level, I believe the most appropriate subject would be biology, using the article as a starting point to reflect on homeostatic mechanisms and on how the body is influenced by external factors (such as light). Students could also discuss astronauts’ health challenges. This can be extended by investigating and reflecting on other major challenges that will have to be considered in future space missions, which are not referred to in the article. Students should suggest possible ways of investigating the impact of those factors.
Betina da Silva Lopes, Portugal