Sponsored Post: Sending a team of genetically modified astronauts on a long journey to the red planet may sound like an ideal plot for a sci-fi horror film, but recent comments from NASA may soon bring the idea out of the realm of fiction. As spouted by Douglas Terrier, NASA’s Chief Technologist, a variety of methods are being considered to protect astronauts from harmful radiation in space, including changes to their genetic makeup1.
“From drug therapies, and those seem to be quite promising, to more extreme things like epigenetic modification – I think those have a lot of ethical consequences so they’re still in the experimental thought stages – all the way to manipulation.”
While the ethical, psychological, and physical effects would most likely raise concern among the world, not to mention among astronauts, could the manipulation of certain genetic elements really increase astronauts’ protection to the radiation commonly encountered in space?
The three main types of space radiation are:
- Particles Trapped In Earth’s Magnetic Field
- Particles Shot Into Space During Solar Flares
- Galactic Cosmic Rays
The magnetic field around the earth traps a variety of different radioactive particles; which are a risk to astronauts every time they pass into or out of the earth’s atmosphere. However, for the sake of travel to Mars, they’re really the least of a space faring crew’s worries.
Solar flares and coronial mass ejections are unpredictable and fast moving, emitted from the sun in the form of high energy particles of ionizing radiation, they can reach the earth in under half an hour. The unpredictable nature of solar flare produced radiation is what makes it so deadly; there is hardly time to prep before it has already passed through the spacecraft, and subsequently the bodies, of astronauts.
Galactic Cosmic Rays include heavy, high-energy ions of elements that have shed all their electrons as they journeyed through the galaxy at the speed of light. Cosmic rays can pass practically unimpeded through a typical spacecraft or the skin of an astronaut, making them a particularly deadly force to contend with for a crew of astronauts making the haul to Mars.
Another problem presents itself if the crew reaches the surface of Mars itself; the red planet lacks a magnetic field to shield its surface, meaning the crew would be subject to radiation from brutal solar storms and cosmic rays. So not only is the journey dangerous, simply existing once the crew arrives also poses its own set of problems.
The potentially deadly and random nature of these types of cosmic radiation have led NASA to think outside of the lead lined box when considering combating the harmful effects they could inflict on a Mars bound crew and their genetic makeup.
Traditional Forms Of Protection
Considering the widespread use of radiation in multiple industries, there are existing forms of shielding and protection that are effective for use with controlled blasts of radiation. Lead aprons, and more recently lead-free elemental composite materials, are commonly employed in the healthcare field. Nuclear power plants utilize six foot thick concrete walls and massive pools of water to dampen the effects of radiation on their environments and personnel.
While these methods may be well suited for the surface of the earth, they’re far from applicable to travel in space. The use of concrete and water, especially at the volumes required to shield from somewhat predictable radiation (as opposed to the intensely erratic forms of radiation encountered in space), are hardly practical. They’re ill-suited for use in protective suits or space craft due to weight, maintenance, and the protection offered. NASA’s main form of combating radiation at this point, aside from existing materials used in ships and suits, is avoidance.
Predicting radiation forecasts is effective when it comes to orbit or quick (in terms of space travel), missions, but when a crew is marooned in the celestial expanses far away from mother earth, other methods will have to be devised.
While NASA hasn’t said much about the genetic manipulation they’re considering for a Mars-bound crew, chances are that it would focus on some sort of protection against the ionizing and subsequent damaging of DNA by radiation directly interacting with genetic code when it passes through an astronaut’s body or spacecraft.
Most likely, the genetic modifications would also have to account to less susceptibility to free radicals produced by passing radiation in the environment as well, a problem that would affect the food and water supply of a crew planning a particularly long holiday on Mars. Regardless of the semantics, the proposition of genetic modification is an exciting, if ethically questionable, next step for mankind’s endless exploration of the stars.