Astronauts who will travel to Mars may have a higher chance of developing dementia and long-term brain damage.
Despite this, NASA is optimistic in thinking it can resolve all the issues by the 2030s.
A DANGEROUS TRIP
NASA, SpaceX, Boeing, and many other parties from all over the world are dead set on reaching the next frontier of human spaceflight: Mars. In fact, NASA has started recruiting people who want to experience “The Martian” in real life.
But before you start begging NASA for a chance to go, you may want to consider this new finding. A team from UC Irvine has found that astronauts who will travel to Mars may have a higher chance of developing dementia and long-term brain damage.
To be fair, this news isn’t really much of a shocker. Astronauts who come from the ISS experience a whole host of bodily changes: reduced bone mass, damage to the central nervous system, sleep disturbance, even excessive flatulence. But scientists found that travel to Mars (which would involve a longer spaceflight than anybody has ever endured) could have a more disastrous effect on the brain and nervous system.
UCI’s Charles Limoli and colleagues saw that rats bombarded with charged particle irradiation had less dendrites and spines in their neurons. Moreover, they found that these effects persisted even six months after bombardment. The team also saw that the bombardment affected the “fear extinction” of the subjects. That means they couldn’t suppress memories of stressful and fearful situations.
That means astronauts would think less clearly when confronted with an emergency or problem in the voyage.
TECHNOLOGY AND BIOLOGY
UCI’s research just underscores the fact that developing the right technology isn’t the only thing we need to get us to the red planet. We also need to understand more about how our bodies perform in space, and consider ways to keep astronauts healthy and alert.
The good news is that this problem has been anticipated by the government, and NASA has been called to add to studies on human health in space. They’ll be taking a look at the top hazards for the three-year, round-trip Mars missions including cancer, cataracts, infertility, and even how extreme isolation could lead to psychological problems. No one wants cabin fever in space.
Despite all this, Inspector General Paul Martin pointed out that the space agency is optimistic in thinking it can resolve all the issues by the 2030s. They’ve definitely got a long list to tackle.
For years now, NASA has been puzzled by a mysterious effect of extended space flight: vision damage. Many, though not all, astronauts who have been in space for months at a time experienced their vision slowly degrading, and post-flight inspection revealed that the back of their eyeballs had been squished down and flattened over the course of their trip.
But new research presented this week provides a partial answer to what’s causing this condition: pressurized spinal fluid. Noam Alperin, a researcher at the University of Miami’s Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute, presented findings from research he and his peers conducted on 16 astronauts, measuring the volume of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in their heads before and after spaceflight. CSF floats around the brain and spine, cushioning it and protecting your brain as you move, such as when you stand up after lying down.
Alperin and his team found that astronauts who had been in space for extended trips (about six months) had much higher build up of CSF in the socket around the eye than astronauts who had only gone on short stints (about two weeks). They also designed a new imaging technique to measure exactly how “flat” the astronauts eyeballs had become after extended periods in space.
The idea is that, without the assistance of gravity, the fluid isn’t pulled down and evenly distributed, allowing it to pool in the eye cavity and build up pressure, which slowly starts to warp the eye and cause the vision damage, called visual impairment intracranial pressure syndrome (VIIP). It’s likely some people are more predisposed to this than others, perhaps due to the shape of their skulls, which would explain why some astronauts have not experienced VIIP. But Alperin said his findings suggest anybody could get VIIP if they’re in space for a long enough period of time.
“We saw structural changes in the eye globe only in the long-duration group,” Alperin told me over the phone. “And these changes were associated with increased volumes of the CSF. Our conclusion was that the CSF was playing a major role in the formation of the problem.”
The results have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but Alperin told me the manuscript was recently accepted and will be published shortly. And these reported findings align with what scientists already suspected about the condition, according to Scott M. Smith, the manager of NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, who’s been studying the vision loss issue for the last six years.
“I think this fits very well within what others seem to be thinking at the moment,” Smith told me.
Many astronauts—though, importantly, not all—have experienced this unexplained reduction in eyesight after spending months on the International Space Station, some dropping from perfect 20/20 vision to 20/100 in just six months. Researchers have been gravely concerned about this effect. With plans to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, a mission that would require nine months of space flight one way, we don’t really want to risk all of our astronauts going blind in the process.
“NASA ranks human health risks and the two top risks are radiation and vision issues,” Smith said. “Is it number one or two? Some people would say it’s number one, because we don’t really know what the long-term implications are.”
But the better we understand how VIIP occurs, the more likely we are to be able to create a solution. Smith’s team is currently conducting a clinical trial to investigate whether polycystic ovarian syndrome—which, despite its name, may indeed occur in men—could have similar effects on vision. This research could help explain who is more likely to experience VIIP, as research like Alperin’s explores the physical functions of the condition.
What a solution to the condition will look like depends what else we learn: it could be a medication, or a mechanical device to help redistribute fluid, or something else entirely. But each piece to the puzzle helps us get one step closer to sending humans to Mars, and not blinding them in the process.
Expensive, unsustainable rockets have served as our primary means to exit Earth, but space elevators present a cheaper way to enter outer space.
Although new materials are needed, space elevator missions are in motion and we could see the first elevator constructed in the next several decades.
THE SPACE ELEVATOR
Getting into space with rockets is ridiculously expensive. A NASA Inspector General report says the agency will pay Russia $491.2 million to send six astronauts into space in 2018. That’s almost $82 million a seat.
And depending on what company you launch a satellite with, it costs between $10 to $30 million for every metric ton you send into space, The Motley Fool reported this year. But there’s a vastly more affordable answer to rockets — space elevators.
Futurists have flirted with the idea of space elevators since 1895 when the Eiffel Tower inspired Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Tsiolkovksy reasoned if a tower was built 35,800 kilometers (22,236 miles) high, it would reach geostationary orbit and could carry payloads to outer space. His concept isn’t too far off from current thinking.
A 2002 NASA study by Dr. Brad Edwards re-invigorated the scientific community with what’s considered today’s modern day space elevator. According to the study, a flexible and durable cable with a space station counterweight could serve as a viable space elevator.
A mechanical “climber” — using magnetic levitation or rollers along the tether — would then carry many tons of equipment or people into orbit. Although such a project would cost in the tens of billions, it would eventually pay for itself by providing much cheaper space travel to a greatly expanded market.
A 2014 report by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) proposes a “ribbon” tether stretching well past geostationary orbit that’s roughly one hundred million times longer than its width. The “ribbon,” held down by an anchor as heavy as about 170 school buses, could carry 1 kilogram to geosynchronous orbit for $500, opposed to the current price of $20,000 per kilogram via rocket, according to the IAA report.
Dr. Peter Swan, who helped author the IAA report, is the president of the International Space Elevator Consortium, a professional society of space elevator enthusiasts advocating for the megastructure. He said space elevators offer an “opening of our vision towards humanity’s future.”
“There’s a tremendous movement of moving off-planet,” Swan told Futurism. “Space elevators could jump in and help the whole process by lowering the cost to geosynchronous and beyond.”
Swan, a satellite engineer by trade, said a functioning elevator would decrease the cost of launching satellites and missions by 99 percent.
A different concept by Thoth aims to build an elevator just 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) high to launch rocket trips that would cost less fuel. But Thoth and the IAA face the same obstacle as all other space elevator designs: materials.
THE MATERIALS PROBLEM
To build a tether capable of reaching tens of kilometers from Earth, an incredibly strong, dense, and flexible material is needed. This is because gravity decreases the farther away from Earth you are, so the tensile strength for the cable has to support roughly 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) of itself.
Engineers thought the tether could be made of ultra flexible and tough carbon nanotubes, but a study by Hong Kong Polytechnic University ruled them out this year. It’s also possible a version of the diamond nanothreads researchers discovered in late 2015 could be the key.
Swan said diamond nanothreads or boron nitride might work but still believes carbon nanotubes will be crucial in building the space elevator tether, despite the new Hong Kong Polytechnic University study.
“I don’t believe that any of the space elevator people that are working with carbon nanotubes to have been scared by that statement,” Swan said.
Point being: The materials don’t exist — yet. But we could see the right materials come out before 2030, according to a study published in the journal New Space.
The materials problem isn’t stopping the Japanese from trying to build a space elevator. The STAR-C orbiter from Shizouka University is on its way to the ISS and will test Kevlar in space to see if the material could work as a tether.
“They’re going to simulate what a tether climber could do on Kevlar. That would be a major step forward in the knowledge of space tethers and space elevators,” Swan said. “I applaud their activity.”
And since gravity isn’t as strong on the Moon or Mars as it is on Earth, we already have the materials — like Kevlar — to build space elevator tethers on these smaller celestial bodies. So space colonists in the immediate future could make use of the technology.
SOLAR SPACE ELEVATORS
Space elevators also present a way to generate potentially massive amounts of solar electricity. This is because solar panels in outer space — where the Sun’s light is unfiltered — can absorb vastly more energy than on Earth. The array could then radiate electricity down to Earth, bypassing power lines completely, Swan said.
“The key is to put acre-size solar arrays at geosynchronous (altitude), and radiate the energy down to the Earth at very, very low cost,” Swan said.
The 2009 sci-fi anime “Gundam 00” portrays a world where humans depend on a few orbital elevators to almost completely power the planet with solar power. Could something like it be in our future?
Swan ultimately believes space elevators will expand “the aperture of the human spirit.”
“By having extremely low-cost access to space, you can open up the human mind, so moving off-planet is not a dream, but a reality,” Swan said. “We can talk about going to Mars, going to the Moon, having a colony orbiting around the Earth.”
When Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed safely on the moon in July 1969, NASA and the entirety of the United States rejoiced knowing it was the first country to successfully put a man on the moon. Cameras rolled, flags were planted, and President Richard Nixon’s administration breathed a heavy sigh of relief because he would not have to read this poignant letter titled “In Event of Moon Disaster” that would have commemorated both astronauts’ sacrifice.
Dying in space is a grim reality that all astronauts must accept as a possibility. It’s also something we all consider while watching movies that take place outside the grip of Earth’s gravity. Would astronaut David Bowman really survive without his helmet in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Would space pirate Marc Watney really live through a puncture in his suit while stranded on Mars in The Martian?The grisly manner of death depicted in Total Recall is often regarded as the most famous and graphic portrayal of space exposure in Hollywood, but not exactly as the most authentic.
So how does the human body react to deep space exposure? Brit Lab’s Dara O Briain and Mark Miodownik discuss the so-called vacuum of space and how long someone would last out there without a spacesuit. Answer: not very long.
As Miodownik explains, exposure to space does not result in instant death, but it comes pretty close. A person would become extremely cold almost instantly. A sudden and significant drop in pressure would cause blood to boil, and as the vapor pressure goes down it results in extremely low temperatures. But don’t worry about freezing to death. You would be dead from asphyxiation within moments due to the whole lack of breathable air — and holding your breath would just lead to a pair of exploded lungs. For an up close and personal look at what would happen to your blood, click on the video to see Miodownik’s experiment.
System works by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container
Sun’s energy provides electricity for microwaves, so no fuel is needed
Researchers previously said this wouldn’t work in the vacuum of space
Engineers quietly revealed results of test to show otherwise on a forum
Warp drives that let humans zip around other galaxies may no longer belong purely in the realm of science fiction.
Nasa is believed to have been quietly testing a revolutionary new method of space travel that could one day allow humans to travel at speeds faster than light.
Researchers say the new drive could carry passengers and their equipment to the moon in as little as four hours. A trip to Alpha Centauri, which would take tens of thousands of years now, could be reached in just 100 years.
The system is based on electromagnetic drive, or EMDrive, which converts electrical energy into thrust without the need for rocket fuel.
HOW DOES AN EMDRIVE WORK?
The concept of an EmDrive engine is relatively simple. It provides thrust to a spacecraft by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container.
Solar energy provides the electricity to power the microwaves, which means that no propellant is needed.
Researchers previously believed this wouldn’t work in the vacuum of space, but Nasa has allegedly shown otherwise.
The implications for this could be huge. For instance, current satellites could be half the size they are today without the need to carry fuel.
Humans could also travel further into space, generating their own propulsion on the way.
According to classical physics, this should be impossible because it violates the law of conservation of momentum.
The law states that the momentum of a system is constant if there are no external forces acting on the system – which is why propellant is required in traditional rockets.
Researchers from the US, UK and China have demonstrated EMDrive over the past few decades, but their results have been controversial as no one has been exactly sure how it works.
Now, Nasa has built an EMDrive that works in conditions like those in space, according to users on forum NasaSpaceFlight.com.
A number of those discussing the plan on the technical forum claim to be Nasa engineers who are involved in the project.
The concept of an EmDrive engine is relatively simple. It provides thrust to a spacecraft by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container.Solar energy provides the electricity to power the microwaves, which means that no propellant is needed.
The implications for this could be huge. For instance, current satellites could be half the size they are today without the need to carry fuel.
Humans could also travel further into space, generating their own propulsion on the way.
When London-based Roger Sawyer came up with concept in 2000, the only team that took him seriously was a group of Chinese scientists.
In 2009, the team allegedly produced 720 millinewton (or 72g) of thrust, enough to build a satellite thruster. But still, nobody believed they had achieved this.
Last year, Pennsylvania-based scientist Guido Fetta and his team at Nasa Eagleworks published a paper that demonstrates that a similar engine works on the same principles.
Their model, dubbed Cannae Drive, produces much less thrust at 30 to 50 micronewtons – less than a thousandth of the output of some relatively low-powered ion thrusters used today.
On the NasaSpaceFlight.com, those allegedly involved in the project claim that the reason previous EmDrive models were criticised were that none of the tests had been carried out in a vacuum.
Physics says particles in the quantum vacuum cannot be ionised, so therefore you cannot push against it. But Nasa’s latest test is claimed to have shown otherwise.
‘Nasa has successfully tested their EmDrive in a hard vacuum – the first time any organisation has reported such a successful test,’ the researchers wrote.
‘To this end, Nasa Eagleworks has now nullified the prevailing hypothesis that thrust measurements were due to thermal convection.’
However, Nasa’s official site says that: ‘There are many ‘absurd’ theories that have become reality over the years of scientific research.
‘But for the near future, warp drive remains a dream,’ in a post updated last month.
Speculation about life on Mars has been rampant this fall. Rumors that the Mars Curiosity Rover may have found evidence of life on Mars have surfaced twice in the past few weeks. The most recent rumor started when a member of the Curiosity team was quoted as saying that they had collected data that was “Earthshaking” and “one for the history books.” This led to a barrage of rumors that Curiosity may have found organic material on Mars and some people even speculated that life had been found. The reality gave no confirmation of life, but the NASA press conference on December 3, 2012 did reveal that some simple organics were found. They were not sure if they were indigenous to Mars, if they may have been residual organics from Earth, or if they had been deposited from other space objects (meteorites) impacting Mars.
Curiosity’s mission should give us the answer to this eventually as it is scheduled to continue for at least another 18 months and was recently “officially” extended indefinitely. This gives Curiosity ample time to sample soil and rocks in some highly promising locations within Gale Crater on Mars. If organics exist there, Curiosity should know within the next few months.
Although Curiosity is not designed to verify life, we are left to wonder — if Curiosity did discover life on Mars, what would be the impact of that discovery to the general public and to the future of human and robotic exploration of Mars?
One thing is certain, it would have a substantial impact, but the nature of that impact could move in many different directions. A popular belief is that if we found life on Mars this would accelerate our goals of sending humans to Mars as well as our robotic efforts, and also might transform our religious and societal beliefs. This isn’t necessarily the case.
Our Place in the Universe
In fact, we have already had a test run for this hypothesis. Back in 1996, scientists announced findings that indicated that they had found fossil evidence of microbial life forms on a Martian meteorite (ALH 84001) that had been found in Antarctica a decade earlier. The story became a media sensation and President Clinton conducted a press conference to discuss the discovery. The announcement certainly did impact our robotic missions planning, but it did little to advance human space flight (we didn’t change directions in human space flight until after the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the skies over Texas.) The public enthusiasm to the announcement was also very short lived and there is little evidence that it transformed anyone’s religious or societal viewpoint. Would the confirmation of current microbial life be different? Probably not. The public would be engaged for a while (and probably enthusiastically), but the enthusiasm would be relatively short lived. It would likely take the discovery of a higher life form to ignite the type of passionate debate and emotion that was seen in the movie Contact.
Save the Microbes!
Perhaps the greatest impact would be within the mission planning community and among policy makers. Life on Mars will almost certainly make human missions to Mars far more complicated to plan. Planetary protection protocols would be very strict as we planned human missions to Mars. We would have to assure that there would be no forward, nor backward, contamination. This would become a VERY serious issue.
We should expect potential lawsuits from “Mars environmentalists” trying to block ANY human missions to Mars, claiming that we threaten the existence of indigenous Martian life. We would almost certainly hear protestors yelling slogans like “We’ve ruined our own planet, what right do we have to ruin Mars.” This process would probably be similar to the reaction in advance of the launch of the Cassini mission to Saturn back in 1997. This mission was carrying 72 pounds of plutonium dioxide (not the more dangerous plutonium 239 used in nuclear weapons) to power the mission.
The mere fact that there was a form of plutonium on board sparked fears that if the rocket exploded, plutonium would rain down on central Florida. There were numerous protests outside NASA and there even was a legal challenge in the Federal Court of Hawaii challenging the mission’s Environmental Impact Statement. Only after this challenge was rejected in Hawaii and in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was the mission able to launch. Like Cassini, the legal challenges to a Mars mission would be likely to fail. Depending on when the discovery of life was made (is a human mission ten years in the future or one year in the future from the discovery), it could slow down a human mission to Mars. Discovery of life might also serve as a catalyst for various nations to propose contamination protocols in the United Nations – protocols that the US would probably not sign. Again, this would not be enough to stop a human mission to Mars.
That said, the discovery of even microbial life on Mars will be one of the most significant events in human history. And when we do send humans to Mars, we will absolutely need to take precautions and make sure we have solid protocols in place to protect Martian life and protect the crew and Earth from Martian life.
The Human Factor
Still, discovery of life on Mars should not stop a human mission to the Red Planet. On the contrary, it should be a strong case in favor of such a mission. After all, it will be far easier for us to understand the nature of this interplanetary strain of life if we have human scientists there to analyze it. There is also the strong possibility that we will not be able to provide 100 percent verification of Martian life until we send humans to Mars. At least for the foreseeable future, human explorers are the most accurate and efficient method of not only determining the nature of Martian life, but also determining long-term protocols for the protection of both indigenous life forms on other planets and for humanity.
Let’s hope that if such a discovery is made in the next few years, we are able to proceed in as rationale and productive a manner as possible.