Health problems cannot be avoided in space. You can develop cancer, lose muscle, or lose your memory. 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 journey to Mars?
NASA wants humans on Mars in 2035. Scientists believe the planet has all the resources needed to build human colonies, including subsurface water, 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 journey in a spaceship. Although this experience can literally be described as being outside the world, there are many challenges associated with this journey. People who make this journey will carve their names in history, but first they must face health risks that have never been faced before. Do you think you can have the mental and physical ability to deal with such a journey?
Danger of radiation: When sun cream is not enough
The first challenge on your journey is radiation. You cannot see it, and you cannot feel it, but rest assured that you are constantly bombarded by radiation. And this is not the type of radiation we have on Earth, which can be blocked with decent sun cream. Some forms of radiation in space can collide very hard with everything in their path, tearing plastic, metal and skin.
Almost every part of your body is vulnerable to radiation damage. Cancer is certainly one of the main concerns, but there are many other health problems, including cardiovascular problems, cognitive disorders and memory problems, to name just a few.
However, it's not all doom and gloom. Researchers are looking for ways to offer some protection against radiation, including new ingredients to block it, as well as innovative pharmaceutical approaches that might be more effective than protecting. One example that is already operating is the Radiation Assessment Detector, which has been sent to Mars specifically to prepare for future human exploration. This device measures radiation on Mars, including not only from space but also any radiation that comes from interactions with the atmosphere and soil.
There is no gravity that is harmful to bones and muscles
Your second challenge is the lack of gravity. Both during space flight and in every future colony on Mars, you will be exposed to a lot of gravitational fields "Lighter" compared to what we have on Earth.
Sounds nice to hover in zero gravity, but this can be very dangerous for your bones and muscles. Research has found that after only 3 weeks in space, some muscles can shrink by one third, and during longer missions, the physical capacity of astronauts decreases by 30 to 50%. All this is because blood vessels are not as effective as the transport of oxygen to the muscles that work while in space. Practically, this means you have to get tired quickly and struggle to do the most simple tasks during your trip to Mars.
NASA recommends 2 hours of exercise every day, but there are other possibilities that might interest many aspiring astronauts. The researchers had very positive results with resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, and showed that moderate daily doses can help reduce muscle loss while on Mars.
Low gravity also disrupts blood circulation, as is known by some astronauts stationed at ISS. On Earth, gravity tries to push blood down from the heart throughout the body, but in microgravity, however, blood does not move in the same way. For example, researchers found problems in blood circulation in some astronauts after only 50 days in space, with one of them even developing a case of thrombosis. There is no solution to this problem, but the high number of astronauts who have experienced this problem is sufficient for further research.
Another problem with microgravity is that it can weaken the way your body fights infection. On your way to Mars, you may encounter unusual allergies and treat rashes that you have never experienced before. Standard measures such as vaccines and good nutrition greatly help boost the immune system, and this is usually combined with only using pasteurized food and drinks and strong air filters to help prevent the spread of disease. But even such an effort seems insufficient and researchers continue to work on ways to reduce this problem.
Microgravity can also affect your intestinal microbiome. For example, a long time at the International Space Station (ISS) is enough to destroy Scott Kelly's intestinal microbioma, when compared to her Earth-bound twin sister, Mark Kelly. Fortunately these changes are not permanent, and, perhaps, when you set foot on a spaceship to begin your journey to Mars, you have brought a long list of before, pro and post biotics to counter this effect.
How space travel can affect your brain
Finally, last but not least, there is the impact of space travel in your brain. Interestingly, an international team of experts, including some from Russia, detected important changes in the brains of some cosmonauts after being in space for a long time. It turns out that the brain adapts to microgravity by turning off the balance system in the ear, and emphasizes visual feedback and touch. You will know your brain has completed this transition when feelings of pain and vertigo finally disappear. This may seem harmless, but information like this is very important to develop ways to help people feel less sick in space and adapt more quickly to low gravity.
Even more worrying is the risk of developing dementia or memory loss. Imagine if you went to Mars but can't remember anything about your trip. Studies with mice found negative effects on the brain even 6 months after exposure to space conditions. But there is some hope, in the form of pharmaceutical products aimed at protecting neurons. Researchers aren't there yet, but work is ongoing.
Not ready, but working on it
The reality is that no one will send you to Mars without knowing in detail how spaceflight can affect your body. However, this is the attraction of the Red Planet, so the race continues to develop new ways to ensure safe travel.
By Alex Reis, a science writer, with special expertise in the fields of biology and natural sciences.