Quirks & Quarks

Mars' cosmic rays

Cosmic rays may cause ‘space brain’ in astronauts going to Mars
Artist's concept of possible exploration programs on Mars (NASA/Pat Rawlings)

This week U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. His first goal is to get astronauts to Mars and back safely, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended period of time. But a NASA-funded study on rodents published in this week's issue of the journal Scientific Reports suggests that unless we find develop some solutions to the cosmic ray issue, astronauts travelling to Mars could suffer from a phenomenon known as "space brain." Scientists exposed rodents to approximately the same level of radiation astronauts would face as they travel to Mars and on the red planet's surface. And the lead scientist of the study, Professor Charles Limoli from the University of California Irvine, says he saw increased cognitive impairments in the rodents that, when translated to humans, might impact an astronaut's ability to multitask, make quick decisions, and to respond to unanticipated events. For the first explorers going Mars, adding those impairments to an already stressful mission could spell trouble if the astronauts happen to find themselves in a pinch.

Luckily, we still have a couple of decades to come up with a solution, which is already in the works.

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