Health problems are inevitable in space. You can develop cancer, lose muscle tone or suffer memory loss. The list is long, but the appeal of the Red Planet is strong. Do you have what it takes to survive a 6-month space trip to Mars?
NASA wants humans on Mars by 2035. Scientists are convinced that the planet has all the resources necessary to create a human colony, including water below the surface, and several sources of evidence to support the fact that there were once living things on the Red Planet.
However, from Earth to Mars there is a six-month march in a spaceship. Although the experience can literally be described as out of this world, there is a long list of challenges associated with this journey. People who make the trip will have their names written down in history, but first they must face health risks that no one has encountered so far. Do you think you could have the mental and physical capacity to handle such a journey?
Radiation Hazards: When Sun Cream 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're constantly bombarded by radiation. And this is not the kind of radiation we have on Earth that can be blocked by a decent sunscreen. Some forms of radiation in space can collide quite a bit with everything in their path, tear apart from plastic, metal and leather.
Almost every part of your body is susceptible to radiation damage. Cancer is certainly one of the major concerns, but there are a myriad of other health issues, including cardiovascular problems, disorders of cognitive function and memory, to name but a few.
However, not everything is doomed and gloomy. Researchers are working on ways to offer some protection against radiation, including new materials to block it, as well as innovative pharmaceutical approaches that can be more effective than screening. One example already in service is the radiation detector sent to Mars specifically to prepare for future human studies. This device measures the radiation of Mars, including not only from space but also from any radiation produced by the interaction with the atmosphere and the earth.
Gravity is not dangerous to bones and muscles
Your second challenge is the lack of gravity. Both during space flight and all future colonies of Mars, you will be exposed to a much lighter gravity field than what we have on Earth.
It may sound fun to swim around in zero gravity, but it can be incredibly dangerous for your bones and muscles. Studies have found that after only 3 weeks in space, some muscles can contract by a third, and during longer missions the astronaut's physical capacity has decreased by 30 to 50%. All this because blood vessels are not as effective at transporting oxygen to the working muscle as they are in space. In practice, this means that you should expect to tire easily and struggle to perform even the simplest of tasks during your journey to Mars.
NASA recommends a 2-hour workout every day, but there is another option that many future astronauts may like. Researchers have many positives with resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, and suggest that a moderate daily dose can help mitigate muscle loss while on Mars.
Low gravity is also confused with blood circulation, as some astronauts are located on the ISS understood. On Earth, gravity takes care of pushing blood from the heart to the rest of the body, but in microgravity, however, blood does not move in the same way. For example, researchers found problems with the circulation of several astronauts after only 50 days in space, one of them even developing a case of thrombosis. There is still no solution to this problem, but the large number of astronauts experiencing these problems is sufficient to warrant further research.
Another problem with microgravity is that it can weaken how your body fights infection. On the way to Mars, you may find yourself dealing with unusual allergies and dealing with rashes that you have never had before. Standard measures such as vaccines and good nutrition go a long way in boosting the immune system, and this is usually combined with the use of only pasteurized food and drinks and strong air filters to prevent the spread of disease. But even such efforts do not seem to be enough, and researchers are still working on ways to mitigate these problems.
Microgravity can also affect the gut microbiome. For example, long periods aboard the International Space Station (ISS) were enough to destroy the gut microbiome of astronaut Scott Kelly, compared to his Earth-bound twin brother, Mark Kelly. Fortunately, these changes have not been permanent, and it may be that when you embark on a spacecraft to begin your journey to Mars, you already carry a long list of pre, pro and postbiotics to counteract these effects.
How space travel can affect your brain
Last but not least place, it has the effect of a cosmic journey on your brain. Interestingly, a team of international experts, including some from Russia, found crucial changes in the brains of several astronauts after a long period in space. It turns out that the brain adapts to microgravity by turning off the balancing system in the ears and placing more emphasis on visual and tactile feedback. You will know that your brain has completed this switch when the feeling of sickness and dizziness finally disappears. This may seem harmless, but this kind of information is vital in developing ways to help people feel less sick in space and adapt more quickly to low gravity.
The risk of developing dementia or memory loss is more worrying. Imagine going to Mars, but you can't remember anything about your trip. Studies in mice have found negative effects on the brain even 6 months after space exposure. However, there is some hope in the form of pharmaceuticals aimed at protecting neurons. There are no researchers yet, but work is underway.
Not yet ready, 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 call on the Red Planet that the race is on track to develop new ways to ensure safe travel.
To Alex Reis is a science writer with special experience in biology and the natural sciences.