How likely are you to survive a journey to Mars? A team of Australian researchers has made a model which can predict and track people’s health as they leave the atmosphere – whether they’re up there for an hour-long joyride, or a years-long trip to the Red Planet.
“Obviously, there’s not a lot of data on how the human body responds in space. It’s sort of hard to just fly someone to Mars to see what happens,” says model developer Dr Lex van Loon, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s medical school.
van Loon and colleagues have countered the lack of real test flights, by taking existing health models, and tweaking them for space flight.
“We used them for years in clinical settings. These models pretty much describe your cardiopulmonary system,” explains van Loon.
“They state how blood flows from your heart to your arteries, through your organs and back to the heart.”
These cardiopulmonary models have been useful for understanding and treating patients on Earth.
“Can we use mathematical models that have been around for years, and apply them to space environments?” asks van Loon. The answer to that question appears to be yes.
“You need to find parameters that describe your heart in space, or your blood vessels in space. The good thing is that NASA has lots of data on astronauts as they’re going to space,” says van Loon.
“From all that data, you can adjust the parameters of those physiological models in order to simulate an astronaut.
“And on top of that, you can apply different scenarios. You can put less gravity or more gravity and see how the model responds to that.”
The researchers’ model works for astronauts – but they’re interested in applying it to people without an astronaut’s physique.
“We’re now able to predict what happens to a well-trained, healthy astronaut, but with the rise of Space X and Virgin Galactic space travel is not only limited to the really well-trained, healthy people. We’re currently working on using the models on people with some pathologies – so heart failure, for instance, or respiratory constraints – and see if they’re fit enough to go into space.”
While they can figure out what the side effects may be, van Loon thinks it’s unlikely that rich folk with average (or bad) health will be headed to Mars soon. “I would not encourage them to go to Mars,” he says.
“It’s less relevant to do the Mars simulation. But in the really short-term spaceflights, there are still some significant changes to your cardiovascular system. And we do know what those changes are. You can apply them to unhealthy persons as well.”
The model can also be used to track health in space. This becomes increasingly important the further you travel from Earth. Depending on where the planets are positioned, there could be a 20-minute communication delay between Earth and Mars.
“It’s not only predicting if someone is fit to fly, but you could also use it to monitor their health while they’re in space,” says van Loon.
“For instance, if you go to Mars, you can develop all sorts of abnormalities. It’s been reported that even in well trained, healthy astronauts, they do get blood clots, and their cardiac function will decrease.
“If you can take those measurements, put them in my model and see, okay, do I have to return this guy? Can he go on? Do we need some counter measurements? It’s also sort of a testing environment where you can see what you need to do.”
A paper describing their research is published in npj Microgravity.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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