Science News: What Will Astronauts Need to Survive the Dangerous Journey to Mars?

by Maria Temming (JULY 15, 2020)

On movie missions to Mars, getting there is the easy part. The Martian‘s Mark Watney was fine until a dust storm left him fending for himself. Douglas Quaid’s jaunt to the Red Planet in Total Recall was smooth sailing until he came under fire at Martian customs and immigration.

But in real life, just getting to Mars and back will be rife with dangers that have nothing to do with extreme weather or armed gunmen.

“The mission to Mars is likely going to be four to six individuals [living] together in a can the size of a Winnebago for three years,” says Leticia Vega, associate chief scientist for the NASA Human Research Program in Houston. Time on the planet will be sandwiched between a six- to nine-month journey there by the same long trip back.

Despite dangers, the United States, Russia, China and other nations have all voiced their intentions to send people to the Red Planet. NASA is gunning for a mission to Mars in the 2030s. With that deadline in mind, researchers are developing a suite of medical devices and medications to bring on a trip to Mars.

Astronaut, heal thyself

Pulling shifts in artificial gravity and swallowing antioxidants may become art of an astronaut’s daily routine. But Mars visitors will also have to deal with any unexpected illnesses and injuries without mission control to talk them through an emergency.

Right now, the most sophisticated symptom checkers are tools like VisualDx, diagnostic software used by health care workers in hospitals and clinics. The user answers questions about a patient, such as symptoms and demographic features, to winnow down possible diagnoses. For skin conditions, VisualDx can also analyze photos of a patient’s skin; it’s not be expanded to help users asses ultrasound scans.

Art Papier, a dermatologist and chief executive officer at VisualDx, and colleagues designed a version of the system for use in deep space that works on a laptop without internet. The software doesn’t have to account for every possible diagnosis, like infectious diseases from the tropics. Instead, the focus is on medical conditions that astronauts have a fairly high chance of developing, like rashes or kidney stones.

To learn more about the other items astronauts may be packing for a trip to Mars, read the full Science News article here.

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