NASA and China plan to send astronauts to Mars in 2033, making it the first time in history that humans have traveled to the red planet. Logistical and technical issues, as well as ensuring that astronauts can deal with waste and have enough food and water for the months-long transit to and from Mars, are some of the challenges presented by this. The health and safety of the astronauts, who will be in space for months at a time, is also important. After months of exposure to microgravity, astronauts may have trouble adapting.

A mathematical model was developed by a team of space medicine experts from the Australian National University to determine if these fears have merit. Before astronauts set foot on Mars, there are a lot of other preparations that need to be done. It could be used to assess the impact of long- and short-duration missions that will take astronauts far beyond the Earth-Moon system.

A paper about their mathematical model and conclusions appeared in a journal. The research team was led by a doctor. The greatest threat to a mission to Mars is the amount of time the astronauts will spend in microgravity. Changes to their bodies will be caused by the experience and the Sun and Cosmic sources.

Artist concept of the Mars Ice Home. Credit: NASA.

Microgravity is known to cause muscle and bone density loss and affect organ function, eyesight, and the cardiopulmonary system. Their research is important because of proposed missions to Mars, but also because of the growth of the commercial space sector.

“We know it takes about six to seven months to travel to Mars and this could cause the structure of your blood vessels or the strength of your heart to change due to the weightlessness experienced as a result of zero gravity space travel. With the rise of commercial space flight agencies like Space X and Blue Origin, there’s more room for rich but not necessarily healthy people to go into space, so we want to use mathematical models to predict whether someone is fit to fly to Mars.”

The co-author said that exposure to zero gravity could cause the heart to become lazy because it doesn't have to work as hard.

“When you’re on Earth, gravity is pulling fluid to the bottom half of our body, which is why some people find their legs begin to swell up toward the end of the day. But when you go into space that gravitational pull disappears, which means the fluid shifts to the top half of your body and that triggers a response that fools the body into thinking there’s too much fluid. As a result, you start going to the toilet a lot, you start getting rid of extra fluid, you don’t feel thirsty and you don’t drink as much, which means you become dehydrated in space. 

The Crew Transfer Vehicle (CTV) using its nuclear-thermal rocket engines to slow down and establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA

Tucker says that this is the reason why astronauts are seen faint when they return to Earth from the International Space Station. The longer they stay in space, the more likely they will collapse when they come back to Earth. In the case of the NASA Twins Study, Mark Kelly spent over a year in space and experienced terrible pain, swelling, and other symptoms upon his return.

The communications delay between Earth and Mars adds to the complexity of mission bound for Mars. Depending on the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Mars, these delays can last as long as 20 minutes, which means astronauts must be able to perform their duties without help from mission controllers or support crews. It was explained by Van Loon.

There will be no one on Mars to help the astronauts if they faint or have a medical emergency. This is why we need to be certain that the astronauts are fit to fly. They need to be able to operate effectively and efficiently with little support.

The risks associated with traveling to Mars are simulation based on the data collected from past expeditions to the International Space Station. It was shown that it could mimic key cardiovascular hemodynamic changes after long spaceflight. The results show that astronauts are able to function after a long time in microgravity.

Artist’s impression of a Mars habitat in conjunction with other surface elements on Mars. Credit: NASA

The current model is based on data from middle-aged and well-trained astronauts, but the researchers want to expand it to include commercial spaceflight data. Their goal is to create a model that can mimic the effects of space travel on people with pre-existing heart conditions. If an everyday person were to travel to space, they hope this model will show a more complete picture.

Given the number of celebrities that have flown to space recently, it makes sense to incorporate age-related health issues. Who doesn't know? It might be possible to mimic the effects of long-term exposure to microgravity on children. If we want to send humans to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the future, this research is important.

There is further reading on ANU.