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In 2026, the first Mars One mission shall take the next “giant leap for mankind” with a manned space excursion. This initial effort will be a one-way flight to the red planet with no return trip planned. With every subsequent flight, Mars One hopes to take additional steps towards establishing a permanent human settlement on the fourth rock from the Sun.
Mars One has put a call out for potential astronaut candidates for their first mission, which you can read about here. The following characteristics are listed as bottom-line requirements: (1) Resiliency, or an indomitable spirit; (2) Adaptability, or knowing when to extend one’s boundaries; (3) Curiosity, or the need to understand questions; (4) Ability to trust, or ability to reflect on previous experience; and (5) Creativity/resourcefulness, or knowing how to be flexible in order to solve problems.
All of these qualifications are well and good, but what if none of them end up mattering much to the mission at hand? If something ends up happening to the astronauts en route to Mars, none of these qualifications will hold much water in the face of significant mental impairment. That’s the question posed by the new issue of Advances magazine. Their article summarizes the effects of a study that “exposed mice to charged particles like those found in galactic cosmic rays. And unfortunately, it turns out that exposure to space radiation may put Mars-bound astronauts at risk for cognitive problems, like losing the ability to problem-solve.”
The dilemma boils down to a lack of space’s protective magnetosphere, which would otherwise protect a spacecraft (and its inhabitants) during a voyage. The study’s scientists set out to prove what would happen to mice during an interplanetary voyage by placing mice within a beam of high-energy radiation (ionized oxygen and titanium). This act replicates the most hazardous type of space radiation that astronauts would encounter during the 2+ years of travel time between Earth and Mars. One important aspect of this study involved the use of genetically engineered mice — their neurons glowed, which allowed scientists to observe any changes that took place.
After a mere 6 weeks of this radiation exposure, all of the mice in the study possessed “fewer dendritic synapses — the branches protruding from neurons that transmit electrochemical signals. Charged particles broke those branches right off. The loss of dendritic branches has previously been linked to Alzheimer’s.”
In humans, the same sort of effect could replicate Alzheimer’s disease, thereby destroying their ability to remember current details and prior experiences. This effect would also hamper the astronaut’s problem-solving abilities. According to a press release, “Performance decrements, memory deficits, and loss of awareness and focus during spaceflight may affect mission-critical activities, and exposure to these particles may have long-term adverse consequences to cognition throughout life.” This doesn’t sound terribly hazardous to Mars Ones’ first crew, which would never return in the first place. But the results do seriously hamper any serious effort for round-trip interplanetary voyages, as well as a permanent Mars colonization.