Next stop: Mars

'The only other option is Mars…this planet could be a relatively comfortable place to live, air pressure is just a hundredth of what it is on Earth.' Source: Nasa

'The only other option is Mars…this planet could be a relatively comfortable place to live, air pressure is just a hundredth of what it is on Earth.' Source: Nasa

It seems the next stop in man’s journey of discovery into the solar system will be the Red Planet.

Vitaly Lopota, president and general constructor of Russia’s Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, believes Mars is the only planet in the solar system that would be suitable for human colonization. “Over the next 50 years, Mars will be the focus of space research and exploration,” he said at the recently-held seventh International Aerospace Congress in Moscow.   

Explaining why Mars is the only other planet in the solar system that could support mankind, Lopota reminded those present at the congress that Venus would be fundamentally unsuitable as its surface temperature hovers around 500ºC, and its air pressure is double that of the atmosphere on Earth.

“The only other option is Mars…this planet could be a relatively comfortable place to live, air pressure is just a hundredth of what it is on Earth. When looking into the task of space colonisation, Mars is a good place to start. Furthermore, Mars is the only planet with enough water to support humans,” says Lopota.   

Russian scientists have already developed selection criteria for recruiting a team to fly to Mars. When choosing the right man for a prolonged piloted mission, the two most important qualities are good genes and a large degree of physical and mental strength, says Anatoly Potapov, researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Problems at the Russian Academy of Science.     

“When choosing a team for a Mars mission we are mainly looking for genetic attributes and top results in rigorous physical and psychological testing,” Potapov says. “We now have every tool at our disposal to help develop a system that will ensure the biomedical security of the Mars mission. The International Space Station is a particularly useful resource for preparing future interplanetary expeditions”.  

According to Potapov, specialists are hoping to create a special medicine module in the Russian section of the International Space Station (ISS), which will draw on the results of the Mars-500 experiment that took place between June 2010 and November 2011. “We have 20 years to prepare structures that will ensure biomedical security for prolonged orbital and interplanetary flights, the researcher says. “We are now able to carry out research using unmanned spacecraft and biosatellites, we can conduct insulated bio-molecular experiments, conduct model experiments in isolation, we can look into simulating the state of weightlessness and conduct research in the extreme conditions of the Arctic, the Antarctic and the desert,” Potapov says.    

Specialists at the Institute for Biomedical Problems believe the most pressing task when getting interplanetary expeditions off the ground is to find a way of isolating the space life-support system and make it self-sustaining. To create such a system, one that will be able to guarantee the regeneration of vital supplies, scientists need at least 10 years. The main problem facing scientists is how to ensure a constant production of oxygen, water, food, and how to eliminate metabolic waste products.     

The Mars-500 experiment did much to increase scientists’ understanding of how humans cope with prolonged periods in space. Nevertheless, scientists only managed to recreate some of the conditions cosmonauts would have to contend with on a real flight. As Victor Baranov, first vice-director of Institute of Biomedical Problems at the Russian Academy of Science explained, a similar experiment will be conducted using chimpanzees. “They will be subjected to the same radiation levels that are in space, whilst other issues will be examined using human testers,” Baranov says   

Unfortunately solving these issues will not yield conclusive answers about what happens to people who spend a long time in space. Weightlessness is very dangerous for the human body, and Mars-500 could not go so far as to model the lack of gravity in space. So there is still a question mark over whether humans will physically be able to cope with prolonged periods of without gravity.

American scientists believe people who have spent prolonged periods in space suffer from loss of bone density. Observations carried out on 13 astronauts, each of whom had spent 6 months at the International Space Station, revealed that their skeletal mass had decreased by an average of 14 percent since they first left Earth.

And of course, physical symptoms are just part of the problem. Prolonged space travel also puts the team under immense psychological strain. Unimaginable distances from the Earth, the long monotony and isolation of space travel, cramped conditions on board the spacecraft, the strange sensation of weightlessness, personal tensions within the team, substantial workload both on board the ship and out in open space, the unpredictable nature of the job, the huge risks involved, a sense that the entire mission rests on your shoulders: These are all stresses a cosmonaut has to contend with day after day, and they can end up having a serious effect on his psychological state and ability to function. 

With Mars missions, ground control will be able to do little to help in this respect. Up until now, cosmonauts have had teams of psychologists on tap at mission control and support has always been readily available in conditions, where the signal is good and communication can happen quite easily and effectively. But signals from Earth take 40 minutes to reach Mars, whilst many decisions will have to be made in a split second.

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