hi seas mars colony constructionNASA

HILO, Hawaii — Atop the giant Mauna Loa volcano, the landscape looks eerily similar to the surface of Mars.

Nothing green grows, and all you can see for miles are chunks of red rock and endless fields of lava tubes. It's easy to imagine you're on another world.

But it's even easier when you spot the 1,200-square-foot dome that sits near the summit, which looks exactly like the kind of space habitat that astronauts would use as a base camp on the red planet.

Researchers created this dome to lock volunteers inside and study the least-understood challenge that people will face on a real Mars mission, whether or not SpaceX or NASA sends them: Total isolation.

mars domeKelly Dickerson/Business Insider

Volunteers are cooped up together for the better part of a year. Back in civilization, scientists monitor and measure their performance and see how well they work together as a team.

This ongoing series of studies is called the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), and the researchers conducting this research chose Martha Lenio as the commander for the last simulated mission. She and five other crew members finished an eight-month stay inside the dome in 2015.

During that time, their only contact with the outside world was an email account that linked them to the experiment's mission control. They could only leave the dome wearing a full spacesuit.

Tech Insider recently traveled to Mauna Loa to meet Lenio and spend a night on "Mars," and we chatted with her about her eight-month stay.

We sat outside on the lava tubes to chat — Lenio had already spent enough time inside.

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