Antarctic virtual reality trial to assist astronauts

Mawson research station Medical Officer and an expeditioner test a virtual reality headset for the Virtual Space Station program.
Mawson research station Medical Officer, Dr Helen Cooley, and expeditioner Nate Payne, test a virtual reality headset for the Virtual Space Station program. (Photo: Nick Cullen)

Virtual Reality forests, beaches and cities are being trialled with expeditioners at Australia’s Antarctic stations to inform the development of programs supporting astronauts on long-duration space flights – like a mission to Mars.

The trial is a collaboration between the Australian Antarctic Division’s Polar Medicine Unit and Human Resources team, and the Giesel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in the United States, to understand how virtual reality can help with mental health and well-being in isolated environments.

Australian Antarctic Division Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jeff Ayton, said wintering in Antarctica is analogous to a long-term space mission.

“Expeditioners at our Antarctic stations are isolated in a confined and extreme environment for up to nine months of the year, which is one of the longest confinements on earth,” he said.

“This virtual reality research at Davis and Mawson stations, will help us understand whether a self-help tool can assist with training and support for the well-being and behavioural health of individuals and teams in such environments.”

Expeditioners have the choice of virtual reality Australian beaches, European nature scenes or North American natural and urban environments – the polar opposite to the whiteness and silence of Antarctica.

Other program modules, which are self-directed and available on station, explore conflict management, stress and mood, to optimise expeditioner and team performance. The modules build on existing pre-departure training and support from the station community, the station doctor and experts in Australia.

Astronaut, physician and Professor at Dartmouth College, Jay C. Buckey Jr., said evidence suggested that the immersive nature of virtual reality could improve mental health.

“Virtual reality allows you to immerse people in different natural settings, so they can be in the Bavarian Alps, or they can be on a beach in Australia, and there's evidence that exposure to nature, which we all like and seek out, can be restorative and help to relieve stress. It can also help perhaps improve people's attention and mental functioning,” Professor Buckey Jr said.

“There aren't that many people who live in challenging, isolated, and confined environments, so the information we get from Antarctica will be so valuable because it will tell us how people in this kind of environment would use a tool like this.”

Watch the video on virtual reality in Antarctica.

Corporate Communications
Australian Antarctic Division