Mission to Mars

Astronauts on a Mars mission would spend 500 days on the planet and 360 days on the round trip. Photo / Nasa
Astronauts on a Mars mission would spend 500 days on the planet and 360 days on the round trip. Photo / Nasa

The first people to make the perilous journey to Mars will have to cope with long periods of boredom, the constant worry of returning safely and the joy/pain of each other's company.

According to the latest research into long-duration space travel, they will also endure the sort of radiation exposure that few people of Earth have experienced.

A study has found that astronauts will receive more than half a lifetime's radiation dose during the return journey of a future manned mission to Mars - a calculation that does not take into account the time spent on the surface of the Red Planet.

Measurements of cosmic rays within the Mars Science Laboratory, the unmanned spacecraft that delivered the Curiosity rover to the planet last year, found that radiation exposure would be higher than some experts had predicted for a human mission to Mars and back.

It is the first time scientists have made radiation measurements on a Mars mission from within a space probe that has similar radiation shielding to a manned spacecraft.

Other space probes to Mars had little or no shielding.

The researchers found that during the 360-day round trip to Mars a person would receive more than 60 per cent of the maximum lifetime dose allowed for an astronaut. Any Martian explorer would be exposed to further radiation during the 500 days or so they spent on the planet's surface.

Nasa currently stipulates that its astronauts should not receive more than 1000 milli-Sieverts of radiation over their lifetime - which equates to a 5 per cent increase in the risk of cancer. The radiation device on the Mars Science Laboratory measured about 660mSv - equivalent to a whole body Astronauts' perils on mission to Mars

CT scan once every five or six days.

Dr Cary Zeitlin of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who led the study published in Science, said the relatively high radiation exposure would pose serious problems for a future manned mission to Mars, which Nasa is tentatively planning for beyond 2020.

"Radiation exposure at the level we measured is right at the edge, or possibly over the edge of what is considered acceptable in terms of career exposure limits defined by Nasa and other space agencies," Zeitlin said.

"Those limits depend on our understanding of the health risks associated with exposure to cosmic radiation, and at present that understanding is quite limited," he said.

However, other experts believe the risk is manageable. New materials could improve the shielding against cosmic and solar radiation and astronauts could be selected on the basis of their genetic resistance to radiation damage, which increases the risk of cancer by damaging DNA.

"These results show that cosmic rays are not a showstopper. This confirms what you might expect: the radiation risk is quite acceptable.

"Frankly, it's a modest portion of the risks on a Mars mission," Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, told Science.

Mars challenges

Sleep deprivation

The Mars500 project, where six men spent 520 days and nights on a "spacecraft" in a Russian research institute, found that one of the biggest problems was getting enough of the right sort of sleep. There were wide variations in their sleep-wake cycle. Lack of natural light, fresh air and contact with the outside world disturbed sleeping patterns . Selecting astronauts and the basis of being regular sleepers could help overcome this difficulty.

Microgravity

Long periods in low or zero gravity causes muscles to waste away and bones to become frail. The heart becomes weaker at pumping blood. Exercise using a cycle device, a treadmill and weights boost muscles and bone and maintains red blood cells.

Cabin fever

Being cooped up in the claustrophobic confines of a spacecraft can severely test "interpersonal relationships". One suggestion is to send a pair of astronauts who are already in a proven personal relationship, such as a married couple.

Food

Spicing up the menu with something fresh and tasty would be good for morale, health and psychological wellbeing. Growing your own food in some kind of cosmic greenhouse attached to a space ship would be one solution.

Getting back home

How to get home again? It may be necessary to find a source of water and fuel that could be used for both drinking and the return journey. Mars is thought to have deposits of water, which with the help of solar panels could be converted into oxygen and hydrogen, the raw material of rocket fuel.

- Independent

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