Human deep space exploration is on the verge of becoming a reality, but there are several limitations we must overcome first.
Human deep space exploration is on the verge of becoming a reality, but there are several limitations that we must first overcome. For starters, there is increasing evidence to suggest that long-term space travel may be damaging to the health of astronauts due to the effects of harmful radiation.
A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences cast new light on the issue. Researchers from Georgetown University found that exposure to radiation of the type anticipated in interplanetary space may disrupt the functioning of certain cells in the intestines.
The team used mouse models to show that this kind of ionizing radiation—which would be prevalent on the way to Mars—can perturb a process known as “coordinated epithelial cell migration,” which is essential to human health.
“In the intestine, epithelial cells—a layer of cells that partitions ingested contents from the body—are continually replaced every 3 to 5 days, something akin to what we see in skin,” Kamal Datta, an author of the study from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular & Cellular Biology at Georgetown, told Newsweek. “There is a conical flask-shaped structure called a crypt. Cells divide [grow] in the crypts and move [migrate] upward into projections called villi [in the small intestine], and into the lumen surface [in the large intestine, which does not have villi].”
The mice were exposed to a nonlethal low dose of radiation similar to the kind found in space and monitored for one year. The researchers observed that the radiation led to delayed cell migration, increased tumor formation in the intestines, signs of inflammation and a number of other potentially harmful effects.
“While animal data are difficult to translate to humans, in the absence of human data, this is the next best approach we can take to assess the risk of space radiation in an in vivo scenario during long-duration space travel,” Datta said. “This is the first study of its kind, and further in-depth studies will be required to develop countermeasures for risk reduction.”