Mars is now the official goal of new space race. President Barack Obama announced Tuesday his goal to send Americans to Mars by the 2030s and safely return the brave souls back to Earth. But can the human mind and body hold up through the 35 million mile-long trip into outer space?
Not quite: According to a recent study from U.C. Irvine's Department of Radiation Oncology, cosmic radiation could cause significant damage to human's brains and mental health. The research team, led by professor Charles Limoli, found that exposure to cosmic radiation during deep space travel could cause serious neurocognitive damage and central nervous system function complications.
The three-year trip to and from Mars would expose astronauts to enough radiation to cause brain damage and cancer, which would likely cause impaired decision-making, memory deficits, and increased anxiety.
To conduct the study, researchers analyzed how mice were affected by space-equivalent doses of cosmic radiation. Thanks to the magnetosphere, a protective layer that surrounds Earth, the fully ionized nuclei that make up galactic cosmic rays cannot effect humans while on Earth or in Lower Earth Orbit (where satellites and the International Space Station float). Once an astronaut leaves the protection of the magnetosphere, however, cosmic radiation becomes risk. A previous study found that astronauts of the Apollo program suffered radiation damage, but a trip to Mars would expose humans to even more radiation.
"Our data provide additional evidence that deep space travel poses a real and unique threat to the integrity of neural circuits in the brain," Limoli and his team writes in the study.
Exposure to radioactive particles while shuttling through space can result in potential central nervous system damage that could last an "indefinite" amount of time. The mice exposed to cosmic radiation were found to have suffered from the erosion of neuronal structure, neuronal processes, and the disruption of neurotransmission and cognition. They also "showed little or no signs of recovery." In layman's terms: Space radiation is bad for the brain.
The effect of cosmic radiation on mice cannot be extrapolated to humans without caveats, the study says, but it's clear that there are serious health risks, and measures need to be taken to protect Mars-bound astronauts.
The researchers says that the cosmic radiation could be problematic for astronauts and hinder their ability to complete tasks during deep space missions through "impairments in executive function" of the brain and impact "decision-making under stressful situations," the paper study reports.
As entrepreneurs and government-funded scientists take on the audacious goal of traveling to and from Mars by the 2030s, the obstacle of cosmic radiation and its health risks should not stop us as a human race, the researchers suggest:
"Our exploration of strange new worlds should not be hampered by the fear of cosmic radiation exposure," the study reads, "but rather, inspire robust efforts to advance our understanding of a previously unrecognized problem."