By SHIGEO HIRAI/ Staff Writer
February 4, 2019 at 07:00 JST
Yusuke Murakami stands in front of the Shirase on Jan. 11 in the Takasecho district of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture. (Shigeo Hirai)
FUNABASHI, Chiba Prefecture--When it comes to breaking the ice, it would seem that Shirase is in a league of her own.
Having been decommissioned as an observation vessel in the frozen wastes of Antarctica, the ice breaker is about to be refitted for an equally ambitious journey: to simulate conditions in space.
Yup, you read that correctly.
The project marks the first attempt by the private sector in Japan to study how humans cope with living in the cramped confines of a spacecraft for prolonged periods.
It is also an effort to capitalize on the expertise accumulated by Japanese Antarctic research expeditions over more than six decades.
The project is spearheaded by Yusuke Murakami, 40, head of nonprofit organization Field Assistant. He is also an architect who studies living in extreme environments.
For the experiment, part of the Shirase's interior will be converted to mimic the sealed environment of a spaceship on a mission to Mars.
The six crew members, including the captain, an engineer and a journalist, will spend two weeks in this environment.
The aim is to assess the psychological impact brought on by living in an isolated environment as well as other changes in human relationships.
Murakami is used to spending time in extreme environments. He spent a winter as a member of the 50th expedition (2008-2010) to Antarctica and also stayed at a climbers’ base camp on Mount Everest.
Murakami has also taken part in experiments to simulate a closed environment at facilities managed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the U.S. Mars Society.
A crewed mission to Mars would take several years for a return trip, including a prolonged stay on the Red Planet.
Murakami said Shirase could serve as a symbol for the endurance and courage needed for a manned mission to Mars as the ship had provided Japan with know-how over decades of Antarctic observation in closed spaces that can be put to use for the benefit of life in space in the future.
“When people live in a closed environment for an extended period, they need things their minds can rely on and things they can use as a crutch,” Murakami said. “I want to find those things in the experiment.”
The experiment will attempt to simulate space conditions, minus zero gravity, including a time lag of six minutes for communications between mission control and the ship.
Space rations will comprise freeze-dried food. Fresh drinking water will be limited.
Each member will be allowed to take a shower once every three days.
Based on the assumption that an airlock has been compromised, training will be given in which crew members without spacesuits must evacuate to a “rescue ball” measuring just 90 centimeters in diameter for an extended period.
The first round of the experiment, set to begin on Feb. 23, will determine of the icebreaker is fit for the project.
If it proves usable, Field Assistant intends to publicly solicit participants for "missions" from 2021 with the hope that the findings will be reflected in future crewed expeditions to Mars.
In addition to those who aspire to become astronauts, ordinary mortals can also join the experiment, according to the nonprofit group.
“We want to support the new challenge that connects Antarctica and space,” said Shigeru Saegusa, secretary-general of the WNI WxBunka Foundation, which had been seeking ways to make use of the Shirase.
Kyosuke Murakawa, head director of the Mars Society Japan, added: “It is significant as the project will make crewed expeditions to Mars widely known in Japan.”
Field Assistant went to crowdfunding to cover productions costs for simulated spacesuits and other items for the experiment.
Shirase, the third icebreaker of that name, went into service in 1983. Officially renamed SHIRASE, the vessel was due to be scrapped after the observation ship was decommissioned in 2008 when the current Shirase took over the role. But the vessel was handed over to Hiroyoshi Ishibashi, the late founder of forecasting company Weathernews Inc.
The ship has been moored at Funabashi Port since 2010. The Shirase is currently owned by the WNI WxBunka Foundation, which was set up by Ishibashi, and is open to the public for events and other occasions.
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