Aspiring astronauts might want to think twice before going to Mars, as scientists estimate that the risk of cancer doubles for long-term missions outside Earth’s magnetic field.
A study by Francis Cucinotta, professor at the department of Health Physics and Diagnostic Sciences and Eliedonna Cacao, a PhD student at the University of Nevadain Las Vegas was published in Scientific Reports last month.
Radiation in space is made up of high energy particles streaming from the sun and sources beyond our galaxy. They collide and tear through the nucleotides in DNA, disrupting the building blocks of life in the process and increasing the chances of genetic mutations and cancer.
Such rays will detrimental to the astronaut’s health and cannot be completely prevented with current protective methods, Cucinotta said in a statement on Monday.
“Exploring Mars will require missions of 900 days or longer and includes more than one year in deep space where exposures to all energies of galactic cosmic ray heavy ions are unavoidable. Current levels of radiation shielding would, at best, modestly decrease the exposure risks,” he explained.
“We learned the damaged cells send signals to the surrounding, unaffected cells and likely modify the tissues’ microenvironments. Those signals seem to inspire the healthy cells to mutate, thereby causing additional tumors or cancers,” Cacao said.
Luckily Earth is protected by its magnetic field which deflects most of the particles which would otherwise strip away the molecules in Earth’s atmosphere.
But the Red Planet continues to entice space agencies as they entertain the possibilities of human exploration. The quest to find life outside of Earth is too strong to ignore, especially as evidence that the Red Planet may have been or still have the right conditions to support life continues to mount.
Scientists have found signs that it could have water ice hidden beneath the bedrock, and possible volcanic activity and oxygen in its past, as well as ancient lakes with “favourable conditions” for microbes.
The heightened risk of cancer and possible radiation sickness joins a long list of reasons why human spaceflight is dangerous. The brave explorers will have to endure potential cognitive and eyesight deterioration, and oh, a bad back.
The report, however, only looked at current shielding technology, and NASA is well aware of its shortcomings. Metals are't good for protecting against radiation, and plastics are only slightly better, but water is an excellent protector and even human feces have been touted as a possible preventative. ®