With humans on Mars quickly becoming a reality rather than just something Elon Musk says as pillowtalk, a pertinent question has surfaced: What would happen to your body if you travel to Mars?
Both NASA and China are planning to send missions with human crews to Mars by 2033. The Artemis missions, NASA’s attempt to reach Moon again, are also going to serve as a test and indicator of how humans would fare on Mars.
While these space organisations have been working on ironing out logistical and technical issues, like figuring out how to ensure astronauts have enough food and water for their long journey to Mars, major concerns about the health and safety of the future Mars visitors is also becoming a concern.
Space medicine experts from Australian National University (ANU) have developed a mathematical model to asses the effect of long exposure to radiation and microgravity during the astronauts’ travel to Mars. The model is working towards establishing whether the astronauts would be able to travel to the red planet safely and execute their duties once they reach Mars or not.
“We know it takes about six to seven months to travel to Mars and this could cause the structure of your blood vessels or the strength of your heart to change due to the weightlessness experienced as a result of zero gravity space travel,” writes Dr. Lex van Loon, Research Fellow from ANU College of Health and Medicine and the co-author of the paper published on the model, “With the rise of commercial space flight agencies like Space X and Blue Origin, there’s more room for rich but not necessarily healthy people to go into space, so we want to use mathematical models to predict whether someone is fit to fly to Mars.”
Dr. van Loon acknowledges that there are multiple potential hazards that the Mars mission could face, but the greatest issue could be the time the astronauts spend in microgravity. According to the study, the effects of microgravity on their cardiovascular health combined with damaging radiation from the sun and other cosmic sources will cause fundamental changes to the astronauts’ bodies.
Based one extensive research conducted aboard the International Space Station (ISS), microgravity (or really low gravity) is known to cause muscle and bone density loss and affect organ function, eyesight, and the heart’s ability to pump blood throughout the body.
Astronaut Mark Kelly, who spent over a year in orbit, wrote in his book Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime Of Discovery that he experienced terrible pain, swelling and other extreme symptoms upon his return to Earth.
Co-author of the study, astrophysicist Dr. Emma Tucker has recorded that prolonged exposure to zero gravity could cause the heart to become “lazy” because it doesn’t have to work as hard to overcome gravity and pump blood throughout the body.
“When you’re on Earth, gravity is pulling fluid to the bottom half of our body, which is why some people find their legs begin to swell up toward the end of the day. But when you go into space that gravitational pull disappears, which means the fluid shifts to the top half of your body and that triggers a response that fools the body into thinking there’s too much fluid,” wrote Dr. Tucker, “As a result, you start going to the toilet a lot, you start getting rid of extra fluid, you don’t feel thirsty and you don’t drink as much, which means you become dehydrated in space.”
This is why astronauts returning from ISS are seen fainting or requiring the assistance of a wheelchair when they get back to Earth.
Along with this risk to the bodies of astronauts, the mission to Mars also poses a big complication in the form of communication delay between the planets. Depending upon the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Mars, these delays can last as long as 20 minutes, which means astronauts must be equipped to perform all tasks and duties without immediate assistance from mission controllers and support crews back on Earth. This also includes dealing with medical emergencies.
“If an astronaut faints when they first step out of the spacecraft or if there’s a medical emergency, there will be nobody on Mars to help them,” writes Dr. van Loon, “This is why we must be absolutely certain the astronaut is fit to fly and can adapt to Mars‘ gravitational field. They must be able to operate effectively and efficiently with minimal support during those crucial first few minutes.”
The model designed by these researchers relies on a machine learning algorithm based on astronaut data collected from past expeditions aboard the ISS and Apollo missions to simulate the risks associated with travelling to Mars.
Testing has shown that it can simulate the key changes that would occur to our heart and its ability to pump blood effectively after prolonged spaceflight and under different gravitational conditions.
The current data has been taken from middle-aged and well-trained astronauts and the researchers hope to expand the model’s ability to simulate the impact of prolonged space travel on relatively unhealthy individuals who might have pre-existing heart conditions. This is because they’re hoping to expand the model’s capabilities to include commercial space flight data and provide a more holistic picture of what would happen if an ‘everyday’ person travels to space.