Cosmonauts Prove Mars Travelers Can Land

The relative positions of Earth and Mars during a Mars solar conjunction (Credits: NASA).

The relative positions of Earth and Mars during a Mars solar conjunction (Credits: NASA).

You might have thought that cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin had completed their mission when they returned to Earth on March 16 following 143 days aboard the International Space Station. But the duo still had one important job left: landing on Mars.

The Russian Space Training Center announced on March 17 that the day they landed, Novitsky and Tarelkin successfully simulated a manual landing on Mars in the Center’s centrifuge.

“Because it takes at least half a year to reach Mars, we had no data until yesterday, whether cosmonauts will be fit and capable of conducting a manually controlled landing on Mars in the future,” said Boris Kryuchkov, a deputy head of the Space Training Center. “We now know that it is real, because for the first time in history cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin, who returned from the ISS on March 16, have confirmed such possibility.”

The physical condition of travelers to Mars is one of the major concerns related to sending people to the Red Planet. Astronauts have never had to land on a planet by themselves, without support teams to help them readjust to gravity. Novitsky and Tarelkin’s test is a good sign that after 143 days in space, astronauts will still have the dexterity and physical accumen to operate delicate equipment. More data should be forthcoming from the year long ISS expedition of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko, a mission intended to prove that humans can maintain physical and mental condition on a long duration spaceflight, such as will be required for deep space missions.

Another test for the Mars-bound will be communication lag. This is already managed for communicating with the rovers now on Mars and the satellites in its orbit. Those communications are about to get a little more difficult, however, as a Mars solar conjunction sets in in April. This occurs every 26 months, when Mars passes behind the Sun as viewed from Earth.  NASA reports that from April 9 through 26, while Mars is within 2 degrees of the Sun, contact with Curiosity, Opportunity, Odyssey, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be limited. No commands will be sent to these rovers and satellites during this period for fear they might be corrupted by solar interference. Odyssey will continue to transmit to Earth, although some data loss is expected to occur. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will record all data during this period for transmission to Earth after Mars emerges from the Sun’s shadow.

For more on conjunction impacts, check out the video below: