HOUSTON, Texas — Over the last 60 years, space travel has grown in leaps and bounds — from our first step on the moon in 1969 to sending the first tourist to space. Now, the race is on to land an astronaut on Mars, but could this type of deep space travel have long-lasting and devastating consequences on an astronaut’s health? NASA is working to find out.
Mark Vande Hei returned from the International Space Station after spending 355 days in space, ending his history-making space flight. But it will take nearly three times that long to send a person to Mars, exposing them to deep-space radiation.
“Space radiation is a completely different beast compared to x-rays and gamma rays,” emphasized Sandeep Burma, a radiation biologist at the University of Texas Science Center at San Antonio.
Researchers at UT Health San Antonio are working to find out how space radiation affects the cancer risk of astronauts, especially when it comes to a type of aggressive brain tumor called glioblastoma.
Burma explained, “The nuclei of atoms are especially dangerous. They are essentially moving at nearly the speed of light, and they're highly penetrating.”
In fact, the radiation goes straight through an astronaut’s helmet, protective shields and their brains.
“Astronauts report seeing flashes of light and those flashes of light are caused by these ions hitting their brain cells,” Burma added.
Burma’s team used a particle accelerator to mimic the effects of the radiation in deep space. Preliminary studies in mice show it does trigger tumors.
“Even very small doses of space radiation can be very, very carcinogenic,” Burma said.
This doesn’t mean we can’t travel to Mars; it means we have to find ways to protect the men and women going there.
This study is not only relevant for astronauts, but also to the medical field, since ionizing radiation, even low doses from CT scans, have been reported to increase the risk of brain tumors.