Source: AP

On Sunday, four Chinese volunteers were sealed into a 1,720-square-foot lab where they are supposed to remain for the next six and a half months. The experiment is one of the latest steps in China’s plan to put astronauts on the moon by 2036.

The lab, known as Yuegong-1 or the Lunar Palace, has two plant cultivation areas and a living space, which contains four bed pods, a bathroom, a waste-treatment facility, and a room for raising animals, according to Chinese state-run news. The self-sustaining ecosystem is supposed to mimic the living conditions of a lunar space station.

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The volunteers are students of Beihang, the country’s leading aeronautics and astronautics university. They are replacing volunteers that just completed a 60-day stint in the lab. One of the participants in that study, Liu Hui told Reuters that she sometimes “felt a bit low” at the end of the day.

The latest Lunar Palace volunteers will give researchers a better sense of the emotional toll of living for half a year in a small space without sunlight. “We did this experiment with animals... so we want to see how much impact it will have on people,” Liu Hong, a Beihang professor and a leader of Yuegong-1 told Reuters. “If you spend a long time in this type of environment it can create some psychological problems.”

The project will also allow researchers to test how well their bioregenerative life support system works in an small vacuum.

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This study is just one of the latest efforts of China’s aggressive space program. In 2013, China became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to put a spacecraft on the moon, and the government aims to land a probe on the dark side of the moon by next year. The country has launched two prototype space stations and plans to launch a large station that will rival the International Space Station sometime in the next few years. The Chinese government claims their space ambitions are peaceful in nature, but in 2011 the US Congress banned NASA from collaborating with the China space program out of fears that the relationship could threaten national security.

At the completion of the 200-day experiment, another group of volunteers is expected to move into the lab for 105 days, assuming the current crew doesn’t go insane and live out the plot of a sci-fi horror or Pauly Shore movie.

[Reuters, People’s Daily]