(un)Happy Valentines day in space

Its the 14th of February, or at least thats what the calendar on the wall says, you have been out in deep space heading towards that new colony for so long each day pretty much blurs in to the next. Despite how cold it is outside (and believe me its cold), today is a day to get out the candles, throw a fresh table cloth over the zero g dinning table, open a fresh bottle of onboard engine fermented merlot and splash out on some really rare food cubes (the macaroni and cheese all but ran out several years ago appart from one pack you have been hoarding for a special occasion). Its valentines day and time for romance!

After your romantic meal and your partner retire for a little zero g love making with the hope of producing a little zero g baby to continue the mission (and the human race) onwards towards Earth 2.0 (Earth 1.0 being sadly decimated by giant zombie mutant howler monkeys… dont ask). However according to a new report by NASA scientists making your little bundle of joy is a bit of a longshot. The problem is that space is full of high energy protons which have respect for neither the hulls of spaceships nor human DNA. A study conducted by Dr Straume of the NASA Ames center and his team, seems to conclude that chances are that any fetus conceived in space would be irrevocably damaged by this radiation. Men dont get off any better with decreased sperm counts and generally decreased fertility.

In fact the team conclude that with todays ships, they wouldn’t rate a pregnancies chance of coming to term on a trip to Mars never mind a multi generation journey to the nearest habitable planet. The problem is that radiation like that given off by the sun and found in space can damage out DNA causing defects which in adults can lead to conditions such as cancer. In an unborn baby which is still growing and developing, where DNA is even more important, this effect can be even more catastrophic. Studies in non-human primates have found that about half of all pregnancies failed with a dose of only 0.07 Sieverts (a unit which measures radiation exposure). To put that in perspective, the dose of radiation you would receive on the surface of Mars without shielding is between 0.33 Sieverts and 0.08 Sieverts, much higher than the dangerous level. The report suggest that you might use the soil on Mars to effectively shield against this radiation but notes this level of shielding would be difficult in space.

So where does this leave our budding astro babies ? Well the report also discusses some ways in which the danger from radiation might be mitigated. These range from identifying biomarkers that would identify which astronauts would be the least susceptible to radiation damage, to using electromagnetic fields on ships (big magnets basically) to deflect the charged radiation in much the same way as Earth’s magnetic field protects us here. The problem with this last approach would be the generating the amount of energy required to produce such fields may be prohibitive.

For the new residents of Mars however the team suggest another idea: using Phobos one of Mars moons as a maternity ward. Phobos is closer to its planet than any other moon in our solar system, so much so that Mars covers 25% of the sky. The Mars side of the Phobos also happens play host to a large crater called Stickney crater. Inside this crater our mothers to be could be shielded from as much as 90% of harmful radiation. So perhaps all future Martians will in reality be Phobosians!


Its early days for this kind of research and more study has to be done. Until then space babies are strictly a bad idea and space condoms (possibly lead lined) are a must. Dont say science doenst know how to kill the mood on valentines day!


Tore Straume, Steve Blattnig, & Cary Zeitlin (210). Radiation Hazards and the Colonization of Mars:
Brain, Body, Pregnancy, In-Utero Development, Cardio, Cancer, Degeneration Journal of Cosmology, 12, 3992-4033

Sixty Valentines

Happy Valentine’s Day to you all and, once again, let’s celebrate with a new video from the great Sixty Symbols project about the forces of attraction:

(come on, it’s nearly as good as getting a card!)

The cosmologist at the end of the universe

Sit down, put on some depressing music (anything in my CD collection should do the trick) and allow me to take on the role of Private Frazer to tell you the Galaxy is doomed, doomed to losing it’s beautiful structure, doomed to being seemingly alone in the the universe. Yet even in this bleak environment the intrepid cosmologist can still strive to untangle the mysteries of the universe.

You might have heard that the universe is expanding. You may also know that from various lines of evidence that this expansion is speeding up. In fact the expansion could be growing so fast that in a trillion years the galaxies we see today will be so far away that light from them will take longer than the age of the Universe to reach us. In the long term all we will see is our own Galaxy. When I say our own Galaxy, it won’t be the pretty spiral illustration we see in the classic pictures, the Galaxy is headed for a train wreck.

Our Galaxy is slowly falling towards its neighbour Andromeda. It seems likely that in a few billion years the two galaxies will collide. This will cause the beautiful spiral structures to be ripped apart with the galaxies merging into a large blob like structure. Here’s a nice video showing what might happen.

So we’re in a big blob of a galaxy with no extragalactic sources to observe. I know what you are thinking, what about all the unemployed cosmologists in the far future? But don’t start a collection for the hardship fund just yet, luckily a new paper by a researcher at Harvard has come up with a way for astronomers in the far future to measure the parameters of the universe.

Our Galaxy has a huge black hole in the centre. When stars get too close to this they can get a huge kick in their velocity leading to them being ejected from the Galaxy. Even once the collision has formed Milkomeda (which sounds like an Italian dairy) these expulsions will continue to happen. In the distant future these will be the only extragalactic objects visible. The paper examines what the distribution of these stars will look like and determines that future astronomers could measure the acceleration of the universe using their recession velocities.

So even when all we can see of the universe will be our own Galaxy, we will still be able to measure one of the fundamental parameters of the universe.

Abraham Loeb (2011). On the Importance of Hypervelocity Stars for the Long-Term Future of
Cosmology ApJ arXiv: 1102.0007v1