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Could Astronauts Survive A Round Trip To Mars?

Study Warns That Kidney Failure In Astronauts ‘Could Be Catastrophic For The Mission’s Chances Of Success’

By Georgie Burns

A Rendering of Mars by Kevin Gill via Flickr

One of the biggest barriers to scientists achieving long, deep space missions (such as a round trip to Mars) is the health risks: bone mass loss, genetic disruption, increased cancer risk and muscle atrophy, to name a few. A new study, part of a series of studies aimed at reducing astronaut health risks, by researchers at the University College London aims to tackle one of these risks by exposing mice to simulated galactic cosmic rays, mirroring the conditions humans would face on a round trip to Mars. 

The results were alarming; the radiation exposure would be likely to lead to permanent kidney damage (as the mitochondria would be harmed), warning researchers that astronauts attempting this mission would, in the best-case scenario, need daily dialysis on their return.  

These findings reveal a significant obstacle to the plans of both NASA and SpaceX for human missions to Mars in the next ten/twenty years. However, researchers are adamant that future missions to Mars should not be abandoned. In fact, in some ways, this study has brought us closer to a successful mission by illuminating new priorities. As Professor Stephen Walsh, senior author of the study, aptly puts it:

“Our study highlights the fact that if you’re planning a space mission, kidneys really matter.

You can’t protect them from galactic radiation using shielding, but as we learn more about renal biology, it may be possible to develop technological or pharmaceutical measures to facilitate extended space travel.”

Dr Keith Siew, the study's first author, further detailed the threat: “We know that the kidneys are late to show signs of radiation damage;

by the time this becomes apparent, it’s probably too late to prevent failure, which would be catastrophic for the mission’s chances of success.”

Christopher Mason and his team have proposed another potential piece of the solution. They examined the immune system’s response to spaceflight and its recovery in two men and two women, along with data from 64 other astronauts. Their findings indicated that gene activity was more disrupted in men than women, and a longer recovery period was necessary once they returned to Earth. While these findings do not offer a solution to the kidney failure that could potentially have astronauts relying on dialysis during their journey back, they do suggest that despite around 90% of astronauts being men since the first flight in 1961,

it could be the resilience of female astronauts that will guide us into the future of space exploration. 

However, for now, these studies primarily underscore the extensive research and development needed to ensure the safety of astronauts in any future deep space missions, including the planned trip to Mars. 

1 Comment

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