How the one-year mission in space will help us get to Mars
WATCH: As Aarti Pole reports, the year-long study of the two brothers is critical as NASA looks ahead to journeys deeper into space.
TORONTO — If we are to explore strange new worlds, we’re first going to have to learn how to to live in an environment in which we weren’t meant to live.
That’s why much attention is being paid to the upcoming One-Year Mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
On Friday, a three-man crew — including Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka — will blast off to the ISS. Kelly and Kornienko are part of the first one-year crew on the station. The pair will undergo intense monitoring as well as many tests to learn more about what living in space for an extended duration does to the human body.
And interestingly, Kelly’s twin brother, Mark — also a former astronaut — will be helping in the experiment back here on Earth. He will undergo the same tests which will then be compared to Scott’s.
This isn’t going to mark the longest stay in space: that record belongs to Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov who stayed on board the Russian station Mir from January 1994 to March 1995 for a total of 437 days.
READ MORE: Why are we trying to get to Mars?
But the typical stay on the station is about 6 months. That pales in comparison with a mission to Mars which NASA says would be 30 months. A mission of one year or more has been done four times.
Living in space — though it comes with a beautiful view — isn’t an easy ride. The human body undergoes changes, some acute and some chronic.
The acute effects are fairly well understood. These are things like motion sickness, back pain, congestion and headaches. The effects can start to be felt after several hours or several days and are treated with exercise and even some medication.
But what about the long-term effects?
Even during six-month missions, astronauts experience loss of bone density — it’s estimated that astronauts lose about one per cent of bone loss per month — and muscle mass. Medication and exercise seem to help to reduce that. Though bone density is recovered about a year after astronauts return, doctors aren’t sure if the overall structure returns to normal.
“It’s like somebody spending six months or more in bed and not moving at all,” said Raffi Kuyumjian, Chief Medical Officer, Operational Space Medicine at the Canadian Space Agency.
Kuyumjian worked with astronaut Chris Hadfield when he returned from the ISS in 2013.
Another issue is visual impairment. This is a relatively new finding, Kuyumjian said, first mentioned by astronauts about seven or eight years ago.
“We know that up to two-thirds of astronauts to some extent affected by visual changes,” Kuyumjian said. “We don’t quite understand the mechanism. Is it a question of fluid shifting as we go to macro-gravity…or is it the atmosphere within the space station?”
But this one-year mission — a joint effort between the United States and Russia — will help to give scientists and doctors a better idea of what astronauts on a long-term mission can expect. And then there may be the development of ways to combat the effects.
In the case of a mission to Mars, what happens if there is significant muscle loss on the way? How will astronauts be expected to get out of a spacecraft and walk on its surface?
“We think we understand to some extent what’s happening in the span of six months, we don’t know if the changes that occur in six months stabilize at six months or they would continue progressing, or what really happens after six months,” Kuyumjian said.
There is also the issue of radiation. The space station is still relatively protected by Earth’s magnetosphere, as it only lies about 400 km above Earth. But a day in space — away from Earth’s protective shield — is like getting five chest x-rays a day. So doctors will have to further investigate that, but it can’t be done on the ISS.
Then there’s the psychological effects of being isolated in space. That too will have to be further explored.
The upcoming research is exciting for scientists who want to know what challenges face our fragile human bodies in space.
“It’s a stepping stone. We need to understand a number of problems the astronauts face before we start thinking of going to Mars in the next 20 years or so,” said Kuyumjian.
But he said that he’s hopeful.
“We’ve shown that the human body is incredibly capable of adapting itself to new environments,” he said. “So let’s see to what extent we can do that.”
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