(un)Happy Valentines day in spacePosted: February 14, 2011
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