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White Mars expedition begins

Posted March 25, 2013

The first ever winter crossing of Antarctica, which begins today, could provide insights into the challenge of sending a manned mission to Mars and ensuring its safe return. King’s College is overseeing the White Mars Analogue Study on The Standard Chartered Trans-Antarctic Winter Traverse, which will examine how extreme environments affect human physiology.

The study, organised by King’s alumnus Dr Alexander Kumar, and Dr Mike Stroud (OBE), University of Southampton, is the first of its kind to use a hostile environment on earth to simulate conditions in space.In December members of the expedition team, including Sir Ranulph Fiennes Bt OBE, Brian Newham, and Dr Robert Lambert, undertook a series of tests at King’s Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences. The tests measured their fitness, body composition, muscle strength and immune function. Further tests will be carried out during the expedition, before being repeated once more when the team returns.

Led by Brian Newham, the expedition team will travel from Crown Bay to Captain Scott’s base at McMurdo Sound, via the South Pole. During this six-month period the expedition team will travel 2,400 miles in temperatures approaching -90°C and in near permanent darkness. They will also encounter altitudes of approximately 3200 metres, allowing study of the body’s response to significantly low atmospheric pressure, while the exposure to extreme cold will provide further research opportunities.

Professor Steve Harridge, Director of the Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences at King’s, said: ‘We are constantly looking for analogues – environments which mimic a trip to Mars, including the journey there, the planet itself and the journey back.

‘We hope that important information will be obtained from this study, which will increase our understanding of the limits of human performance, and in particular those which may be relevant for future trips to Mars.’

Dr Alexander Kumar said: ‘I look forward to conducting what may be one of the most extreme, interesting and unique analogue studies ever conducted, which may provide interesting answers to the many challenges associated with sending a manned mission to Mars and seeing it safely return.’

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Expedition Co-Leader, was forced to pull out of the traverse at the end of February and has returned to the UK for medical treatment for frostbite on two fingers. However, this offers important insights for the White Mars Analogue Study, according to Dr David Green, Senior Lecturer of Human & Aerospace Physiology at King’s, who is conducting a series of tests on the effects of extreme cold on skin sensation and motor performance in the hand. He explained: ‘The conditions facing the expedition team, where the ability to conduct fine motor tasks with the hands is critical to survival, are not unlike those posed by a space mission. When performing tasks outside of the spacecraft, astronauts have to contend with low atmospheric pressure and extreme cold – either by absence of sunlight or the restriction of blood-flow caused by spacesuits.’

Sir Ranulph Fiennes continues to support the expedition by fundraising for ‘Seeing is Believing’ and promoting awareness of the expedition.

He said: ‘Today my colleagues begin what will be a significant and life-changing challenge. They are the first people ever to try to cross the Antarctic continent during the polar winter – it is a huge feat of exploration and daring.

‘I have spent five long years planning, organising and masterminding the expedition, which I have now put into the capable hands of Brian Newham, the new Expedition Leader. We’ve had messages of support from all around the world and from all sorts of people – from HRH The Prince of Wales, Royal Patron of The Coldest Journey, to Joanna Lumley, a trustee of the expedition.

‘It is a fantastic adventure and I am sure that it will succeed. Whilst the team are out there on the ice making history, I am proud to be here doing all that I can for the expedition and for Seeing is Believing, which is an incredibly worthy charity.

‘I wish the team the very best of luck and will be following their progress closely.’

Source: King‘s College

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