There's no question that the race to get humans to Mars has come a long, long way in the last 10 years, but there are still plenty of hurdles to clear if we're going to make good on the plan to send astronauts there by the 2030s. And as if the insane engineering and logistical challenges weren't enough, it seems we're also going to have to factor in a terrifying health risk to whoever we send up there. Scientists are now suggesting that the two to three year round-trip to Mars may cause significant long-term brain damage, not to mention very severe anxiety.
The news comes after a study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine revealed that "galactic cosmic rays" -- like the ones astronauts would be bombarded with en route to the Red Planet -- have been shown to cause severe cognitive impairment and dementia in rodents. The damage is similar to what's been seen in brain cancer patients who've undergone high-dose radiation treatments.
Prolonged exposure to these cosmic rays would also affect what's known as "fear extinction" -- a process which helps suppress unpleasant or stressful associations -- and potentially induce extreme anxiety. Understandably, this could spell out big, big trouble for anyone who's hundreds of millions from home and surrounded by nothing but black nothingness.
So why doesn't this sort of thing happen to astronauts like Scott Kelly, who have spent a hell of a long time floating around the International Space Station without any problems? It's because visitors to the ISS aren't exposed to the same types of dangerous rays, since it orbits within the earth's protective magnetosphere.
It's not necessarily a foregone conclusion that anyone who dares travel to Mars is doomed to live with brain damage for the rest of their lives, though. The study points to some preventative measures worth looking into, including a special protective barrier area of the spacecraft where astronauts could retreat to sleep and spend down time, and a vaccine of sorts that would collect free radicals and prevent them from entering your brain.
In any case, wonder how this news will impact Leo DiCaprio's plans to hitch a ride up there with Elon Musk.
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