Each year, ESA sponsors a medical research doctor to brave the cold, dark days of Antarctica to study the effects of isolation in preparation for long space missions. The next crew have already been chosen and are preparing to leave on their long journey to the South Pole.
Concordia research station is one of the few permanently crewed habitats in Antarctica. Situated near the South Pole, its nearest neighbour is Russia's Vostok base, some 600 km away.
Keeping the base running during the winter months requires a minimum of seven people: chef, doctor, mechanic, technical manager, plumber, electrician and telecommunications expert.
This year, eight scientists will join the skeleton crew, including a chemist, two astronomers, an astrophysicist and a glaciologist.
ESA is sponsoring Nathalie Pattyn to run experiments for other scientists on how she and the crew adapt to living in Concordia, where the conditions are similar to living on a spaceship.
The altitude Concordia is 3200 m above sea level means the crew have to adapt to a permanent lack of oxygen. During their minimum eight-month stay, four months will be spent without sunlight, affecting sleep patterns and mood.
In addition, nothing can reach or leave the base during the winter, meaning the crew live in isolation, dependent on each other in daily life and emergencies, just like a crew on a space mission. As a Belgian military doctor specialising in research into human performance in stressful situations, Nathalie is well suited to the job.
Her research this year will be as diverse as collecting psychological questionnaires, taking microbial samples, recording video diaries, drawing blood for hormone analysis and recording intra-cranial pressure of volunteers.
Video diaries will be analysed to assess the crew's mood without asking them directly. By looking at the structure of their sentences and how they are spoken, it should be possible to understand what they are feeling.
Nathalie says: "This research is very promising because it can bypass a standard problem in psychology: to understand what people feel, they need to be willing to tell you. Here, we will just use objective properties of speech to monitor mood."
Results from this research will improve how ESA prepares astronauts for spaceflight but they will also have benefits for people on Earth.