Wanted: people prepared to be locked up for two years

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Wanted: six volunteers to spend up to two years pretending to be cosmonauts in a dimly lit, confined space without alcohol, cigarettes and, possibly, sex.

It may not be everyone's idea of fun but that is what Russian scientists are offering anyone interested in a gruelling experiment billed as a precursor for a manned mission to Mars.

The unusual trial, codenamed Mars-500, will be Russia's longest and most arduous isolation experiment. It will be conducted by the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems in northern Moscow.

"Blast-off" in a mock-up of a Russian spaceship is scheduled for autumn 2007, and applications are already open.

A cross between a tiny Big Brother house and the set for Blake's 7, the "spacecraft" was built in the 1970s as part of the Soviet space programme. The six volunteers will spend a minimum of 520 days in a sealed five-capsule unit that measures 550 cubic metres. Once the doors are closed there will be no reopening them. The "flight" will seek to replicate a journey from Earth to Mars, a distance of at least at least 35 million miles. The crew will be expected to cope with various simulated emergencies along the way.

The first 250-day phase of the experiment will represent the trip from Earth to the Red Planet. The second will simulate a 30-day stay on Mars' surface. The third 240-day phase will cover the journey home.

The project's scientists have said they reserve the right to add another 180 days, meaning that the experiment may last just under two years.

Volunteers must be aged between 25 and 50, have a decent command of Russian and English, and preferably be doctors, engineers, biologists or IT specialists. They will first have to undergo medical tests and will be screened for habits that risk irritating their fellow volunteers.

The successful candidates will receive a salary, as yet unspecified. Fifty people from 12 countries have already applied, including some from the UK.

The crew will be able to communicate with the outside world only through email and a two-way radio. Response to both channels of communication will be deliberately delayed to simulate the time lag in deep space.

The volunteers will subsist on the same rations as bona fide cosmonauts working on the international space station.

The weightlessness of space will not be recreated but the volunteers will carry out experiments designed to assess the effects of zero gravity on the human body,

Russian scientists want a multinational crew because an attempt to fly to Mars will be so costly it will require participation from Russia, Europe, the US and possibly other parts of the world.

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