There’s more holding us back from a manned mission to Mars than technology – we’re ambitious, but we forget that our own bodies are a problem to be overcome.
According to recent research (opens in new tab) from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the deep space radiation that astronauts would encounter in a three year Mars mission could increase their risk of developing leukemia.
Though we read almost daily that various Earth-bound things are increasing our likelihood of developing cancer (including Mars Bars at some point, we imagine) space is a very different story.
To make their discovery, the researchers transplanted human stem cells into mice and exposed them to the same kind of radiation astronauts would face in real deep space.
Stem cells and deep space
The aim was to establish how much of an effect simulated solar energetic particles (SEP) and galactic cosmic ray (GCR) radiation would have on human hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and the scientists found that “radiation exposure could potentially increase the risk of leukemia in two ways.“
Firstly, the radiation exposure was found to cause direct genetic damage to human stem cells which directly led to leukemia. S
Secondly, the radiation also made it more difficult for the stem cells to produce the kinds of white blood cells that fight foreign invaders, reducing the immune system’s ability to “eliminate the malignant cells that arise as a result of radiation-induced mutations.“
The researchers say these findings are made even more troubling when you take into account that previous research projects have shown that conditions of weightlessness experienced during space travel can also drastically impact an astronaut’s immune function, even after short in-Earth orbit missions where cosmic radiation isn’t really an issue.
Together, these results suggest that the combination of weightlessness and deep space radiation that would occur during a long deep space mission to Mars has the potential to increase the risk of immune-dysfunction and cancer.
The researchers aren’t just throwing problems at the Mars mission, though; as part of their work they’re also looking into the use of a common dietary supplement for its ability to protect astronauts from the damaging effects of radiation.
These projects and others which look into the effects of long-term isolation and confinement and the effects of being far from Earth for long periods of time are all being funded by NASA with the ultimate goals of making manned space travel as safe as possible.