Page last updated at 07:16 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 08:16 UK

Russia tests monkeys for Mars trip

By Sima Ayvazian, Sochi

Russian monkey in Bion space capsule in Sochi
Monkeys previously orbited Earth in the Bion capsule

They won't utter Yuri Gagarin's famous phrase "Let's go!" But the monkeys of Sochi have already proven their worth as trailblazers in space - and now they are being groomed for a trip to Mars.

The macaques will be the first to experience the radiation that poses a big risk to astronauts - or Russian cosmonauts - on any flight to the Red Planet.

The Sochi Institute of Medical Primatology, at Vesyoloye near the Black Sea, has a proud history of involvement in the Russian - formerly Soviet - space programme.

"People and monkeys have approximately identical sensitivity to small and large radiation doses," explains the institute's director, Boris Lapin. "So it is better to experiment on the macaques, but not on dogs or other animals."

The institute will select macaques that may eventually fly to Mars before humans do. After two years of experiments the most suitable 40 monkeys will be sent to the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, where scientists study aerospace biomedicine.

Experiments on the monkeys will be carried out at the same time as the Mars-500 project. That project - due to start early next year - is aimed at simulating the conditions of interplanetary flight. Volunteers will have to spend 17 months in a mock-up "spaceship" in Moscow.

Surface of Mars (file pic)
Monkeys may touch down on boulder-strewn Mars before humans

But a real expedition to Mars is not likely to happen for another 10 years at the very least.

Gruelling mission

In addition to the effects of radiation, space scientists want to see how the monkeys react to prolonged weightless conditions, isolation and a special diet of juices and pureed food.

Mars-500 director Viktor Baranov says 520 days "are enough for the flight to Mars - 250 days to fly there, 250 days to come back and a month for the landing on Mars".

Today Russia is one of the few countries where experiments on primates are carried out.

"Humanity sacrifices more than 100 million animals a year in the name of health and beauty. It's time to think of an alternative to experiments with animals," says Andrei Zbarsky of the international nature conservation group WWF.

Macaque - son of Krosh
The son of space veteran Krosh may one day fly to Mars

"I'm sure scientists will repeat the story of Laika, the first dog in space. Today it's no secret that the dog died from the nervous stress immediately after the rocket launch and its dead body revolved in orbit for two weeks."

Mr Lapin admits that his institute has received some objections from European colleagues concerned about the animal experiments.

A researcher at the institute, Anaida Shaginyan, says "certainly, I feel sorry for the monkeys, they might die, but the experiments are necessary to preserve the lives of the cosmonauts who will fly to Mars in future".

Veteran cosmonauts

The institute has a breeding programme for the macaques, so it is not necessary to catch them in the wild.

Twelve macaques have flown in Russian and Soviet spaceships on previous missions.

Veteran monkey cosmonaut Krosh
Krosh flew in space in 1992 and is still in rude health

Abrek and Bion were the first into space, in December 1983. After a five-day flight they landed in Kazakhstan and after rehabilitation returned to the pack.

Two years later the monkeys Verny and Gordy spent seven days in space.

In 1987 Dryoma and Yerosha spent two weeks in orbit. After returning from space Dryoma was presented to Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

After that there were three two-week flights: in 1989, 1992 and 1996. Then the project stopped - Russia did not have enough money for the programme. Now experiments are conducted on Earth under conditions which simulate weightlessness.

Sixteen-year-old space veteran Krosh is a star of the institute.

"Old man Krosh is about 60 years old, if we translate his monkey age to a human life span. He is very active. He responds well to food and is aggressive with his female partners," says Ms Shaginyan.

"After rehabilitation he produced offspring. And that's proof that spaceflight did not harm his health," she added.

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