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Astronauts reach fake Mars orbit

IBMP / Oleg Voloshin

Mars500 crewmembers test Russian Orlan suits before their mission started in early June 2010.

A six-man crew on a virtual 500-day trip to Mars reached "orbit" around the Red Planet yesterday after 244 days of fake interplanetary travel. The crew is scheduled to "land" on Feb. 12, and will make three trips out onto simulated Martian terrain.

The all-male crew — three from Russia, one from France, one from China and an Italian-Colombian — are really in a mock spaceship parked at the Moscow-based Institute for Medical and Biological Problems. They're part of an experiment to find out how a crew would handle the stress, claustrophobia and fatigue real astronauts would face in long-term interplanetary travel.

Yesterday, the craft "entered a circular orbit around Mars" — according to the mission scenario, which the virtual astronauts follow like a movie script.

Three of the crew members — Alexandr Smoleevskiy, Diego Urbina and Wang Yue — will enter the "lander" scheduled to reach the mock Mars on Feb. 12. The three trips onto the simulated terrain take place between Feb. 14 and 22. The crew will then head back to the mother ship on Feb. 23. The long journey home begins on Feb. 28, and the crew escapes their mock world in early November.

More stories on the Mars 500 expedition:

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).