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article imageEssential Science: Overcoming health risks for Mars mission

By Tim Sandle     Mar 12, 2018 in Science
Although space radiation presents one of the biggest challenges for a human journey to Mars, NASA is working on overcoming this, and other obstacles, so that humans sent to Mars on a future mission remain healthy.
A human mission to Mars has long been the subject of science fiction. However, in recent years NASA has drawn up official plans for human exploration and colonization of Mars. The approach for such a mission is the Deep Space Transport, which is a crewed interplanetary spacecraft being planned by NASA to carry crew to the Martian vicinity for missions to its moons and surface. While one set of scientists are working on the technology of long-flight space missions, others are looking at astronaut health.
There are many health risks for astronauts. One of the major risks facing space travelers is radiation. With radiation, NASA scientists are developing the necessary technologies and countermeasures to ensure a safe and successful journey from Earth to the red planet.
An artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. The young plan...
An artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. The young planet Mars would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometers.
ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (
According to Pat Troutman, who is the NASA Human Exploration Strategic Analysis Lead: "Some people think that radiation will keep NASA from sending people to Mars, but that's not the current situation. When we add the various mitigation techniques up, we are optimistic it will lead to a successful Mars mission with a healthy crew that will live a very long and productive life after they return to Earth."
Space radiation is more deadly than radiation on Earth, especially solar radiation and galactic cosmic rays. When subject to subatomic radioactive particles, astronauts can suffer from symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to organ damage. Radiation can also damage the cardiovascular system and the central nervous system.
Radiation solutions
Different solutions to the radiation risk include building space ships and space suits from thick materials that could shield the passengers. However, the downside is the mass and the greater energy required to propel space ships. This is why much research has been orientated towards developing new materials that deflect more radiation.
NASA s Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP)  the first twin-spacecraft mission designed to explore our...
NASA's Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP), the first twin-spacecraft mission designed to explore our planet's radiation belts, launched into the predawn skies at 4:05 a.m. EDT Thursday, August 30, 2012, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
The researchers at NASA are also looking at integrating radiation-sensing instruments into future spacecraft, such as the Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor. In conjunction, the scientists are looking into enhanced space weather forecasting tools to select optimal times for flight in relation to solar radiation bursts.
In more unusual research related to astronaut health, researchers from the University of Nottingham, U.K., are drawing on volunteers who want to spend three days in bed. Here the scientists are seeking so-called 'pillownauts' in a new study designed to examine a potentially serious adverse effect of weightlessness on the human body. This is because bed rest is an established method to assess the effects of weightlessness on the human body, and to calculate the dangers of bone and muscle mass loss. Other risks that space travelers face are cardiovascular decline plus impaired carbohydrate metabolism; the latter is linked to an increased risk in developing type 2 diabetes.
An astronaut takes a  selfie  in space. Oxford Dictionaries  word of 2013 was  selfie
An astronaut takes a "selfie" in space. Oxford Dictionaries' word of 2013 was "selfie"
Courtesy NASA
Growing crops on Mars
Once settlers reach Mars attempting to grow food will be important for survival. This means finding appropriate fertile land and growing food crops will be one a key tasks for the first astronauts. In relation to this, scientists based at the Wageningen University and Research have recently identified places on Mars that are favorable for plant species to grow. This was based on a computer generated agricultural optimal 3D Mars-wide landing map.
Generating oxygen
Also key to survival is a base camp that has renewable oxygen. One group of researchers think that plasma technology holds the answer to creating a sustainable oxygen supply on Mars. Research from the University of Lisbon suggests that Mars, with its 96 percent carbon dioxide atmosphere, has ideal conditions for creating oxygen from carbon dioxide through the process called decomposition, which utilizes temperature plasmas (ionized gases). This is outlined in the journal Plasma Sources Science and Technology, with the research titled "The case for in situ resource utilisation for oxygen production on Mars by non-equilibrium plasmas."
Essential Science
Representative image of the bacterium Clostridium.
Representative image of the bacterium Clostridium.
Donna Rain
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we looked at how the microbiome is formed. There is a clear link between the microorganisms in our body and health and disease, therefore keeping the right balance is important for good health. Knowing whether or microbiome influenced more by genetics or by the environment is therefore important for medical microbiologists.
The week before we examined a new nanoparticle, at the cellular level, which can reveal how cancer cells move to different locations in the human body. This process involved co-opting the human body’s intercellular delivery service.
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