Researchers may have already dashed our hopes of a Mars colony

8 Mar 2017

Illustration of a future Mars colony. Image: 3000ad/Shutterstock

Researchers looking into the effects of deep space on the human body may have just discovered something that could jeopardise humankind’s chances of a successful Mars colony.

Researchers at major space agencies and scientific research groups are currently planning to establish a Mars colony in the next decade, with experiments already underway to see if humans could cope with the distance and isolation of such a mission.

Yet now, even before the first human has gone beyond our own moon, some potentially life-threatening problems have been discovered that could jeopardise our hopes of establishing a colony on the Red Planet.

Trouble with cells

According to the new research from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, mice transplanted with human stem cells to measure the potential effects of deep space radiation on our species have not reacted well to a series of tests.

Unfortunately for hopeful colonists, the team found that there was a notable increase in the appearance of leukaemia cells when the subjects were exposed to the same type of radiation that would be experienced by astronauts en route to Mars.

With a distance of more than 200m km to our nearest planetary neighbour, a constant bombardment of this radiation would have astronauts sick before they even arrived after the three-year journey.

The findings, published in the journal Leukemia, specifically simulated solar energetic particles and galactic cosmic ray radiation on human hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs).

Found in 0.1pc of an adult’s bone marrow, these stem cells are crucial to the production of blood cells that not only transport oxygen, but eliminate any malignant cells.

Double whammy

“Radiation exposure at these levels was highly deleterious to HSC function, reducing their ability to produce almost all types of blood cells, often by 60-80pc,” said Prof Christopher Porada, senior researcher on the project.

“This could translate into a severely weakened immune system and anaemia during prolonged missions in deep space.”

Porada believes that these latest findings offer serious concerns for future astronauts. Previous research into the body’s reaction to weightlessness and microgravity also showed significant changes in an astronaut’s immune function during even the shortest mission.

When combined, these could result in a drastic increase in the chances of an astronaut developing immune dysfunction and cancer.

Earlier this week, Israeli company StemRad was to test its AstroRad Radiation Shield on the lunar surface ahead of any future Mars missions.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic