Health problems are inevitable in space. You may develop cancer, lose muscle tone, or suffer memory loss. The list is long, but Red Planet's appeal is strong. Do you have what it takes to survive a 6-month spaceflight to Mars?
NASA wants humans on Mars by 2035. Scientists are convinced that the planet retains all the resources needed to establish a human colony, including water beneath the surface, and several sources of evidence to support the fact that there were once living creatures on the Red Planet.
However, there is a six-month spaceship from Earth to Mars. Although the experience can literally be described as out of this world, there is a long list of challenges associated with this journey. People traveling will carry their names in history, but will first have to face health risks that no one has ever encountered. Do you think you could have the mental and physical ability to handle such a journey?
Radiation hazards: When sunscreen is not enough
The first challenge in your journey is radiation. You can't see it and you can't feel it, but make sure you are constantly bombarded with radiation. And this is not the kind of radiation we have on Earth, which can be blocked by a decent sun cream. Some forms of radiation in space can collide quite violently with everything in their path, tearing through plastic, metal and leather.
Virtually every part of your body is subject to radiation damage. Cancer is certainly one of the main concerns, but there are a myriad of other health problems, including cardiovascular problems, cognitive impairment and memory problems, to name just a few.
However, not all misery and gloom are. Researchers are working on ways to offer some radiation protection, including new materials to block it, as well as innovative pharmaceutical approaches that may be more effective than protection. One example already in place is a radiation-detection detector, sent to Mars specifically to prepare for future human research. This device measures radiation in Mars, including not only space, but also any radiation emitted by interaction with the atmosphere and the earth.
No gravity is dangerous to bones and muscles
Your second challenge is lack of gravity. During spaceflight and any future colonies on Mars, you will be exposed to gravitational field. "Easier" compared to what we have on Earth.
It may sound fun to float in zero gravity, but this can be extremely dangerous to your bones and muscles. Studies have found that after just 3 weeks in space, some muscles can shrink by a third, and for longer missions, the physical capacity of astronauts is reduced by 30 to 50%. All this because blood vessels are not so efficient in transporting oxygen to the working muscle while they are in space. In practical terms, this means that you should expect to get tired easily and strive to perform even the simplest tasks while traveling to Mars.
NASA recommends 2-hour training every day, but there is another option that many astronauts might like. Researchers have found very positive results with resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, and suggest that a moderate daily dose may help alleviate muscle loss while on Mars.
Low gravity also interferes with blood circulation, as some astronauts stationed on the ISS have discovered. On Earth, gravity tends to spill blood from the heart to the rest of the body, yet in microwave, blood does not move the same way. For example, researchers found circulatory problems in some astronauts after only 50 days in space, with one of them even developing a case of thrombosis. There is still no solution to this problem, but the large number of astronauts facing these problems is enough to warrant further research.
Another problem with microgravity is that it can weaken as your body fights infection. On the way to Mars, you may find yourself struggling with unusual allergies and dealing with a rash you never did before. Standard measures, such as vaccines and good nutrition, go a long way in strengthening the immune system, usually combining it with the use of only pasteurized foods and beverages and strong air filters to prevent the spread of disease. But even such efforts do not seem to be enough and researchers continue to work on ways to alleviate these problems.
Microgravity can also affect the gut microbiome. For example, long periods at the International Space Station (ISS) were enough to destroy astronaut Scott Kelly's microbiome when compared to his twin twin brother, Mark Kelly. Fortunately, these changes were not permanent, and it may be that when you embark on a spaceship to initiate your journey to Mars, you already have a long list of pre, pro and post-biotics to counter these effects.
How space travel can affect your brain
Finally, last but not least, the impact of space travel on your brain. Interestingly, a team of international experts, including some from Russia, discovered crucial changes in the brains of several cosmonauts over a long period in space. It turns out that the brain adapts to microgravity by shutting off the balance system in the ears and putting more emphasis on visual and tactile feedback. You know the brain has finished this switch when the feeling of sickness and dizziness finally goes away. This may seem harmless, but this kind of information is vital to developing ways to help people feel less painful in space and adapt to small gravity faster.
More worrying is the risk of developing dementia or memory loss. Imagine if you went to Mars, but you can't remember anything about your trip. Studies in mice found adverse effects on the brain even 6 months after exposure to space conditions. However, there is hope in the form of pharmaceuticals aimed at protecting neurons. The researchers are not there yet, but work is underway.
Not ready yet, but working on it
The reality is that no one will send you to Mars without knowing in detail how space flight can affect your body. However, such is the attraction of Red Planet that the race is developing new ways to ensure safe travel.
From Alex Reese, a science writer with some expertise in the field of biology and natural sciences.