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Will astronauts be able to find their feet on Mars?

One less obvious challenge to people landing on Mars is the adaptation to gravity after a long space flight and whether astronauts will be able to stand up when they get there.

Astronauts returning to Earth from the International Space Station exhibit balance control problems, muscle weakness and cardiovascular deconditioning. They also suffer a loss of hand-eye coordination problems, postural stability or steadiness, and vision and perception issues. 

In fact, the longer an astronaut spends in space, the more difficult it is for their brain to readapt to gravity, and with a journey time to Mars of about six months, the problem could be severe when astronauts arrive, even though the planet’s gravity is only 62% that of Earth.

A recent study analysing the balance control disturbances by Jacob Bloomberg, a senior research scientist at NASA evaluated test subjects who have undergone body “unloading” (not carrying one’s own weight), after returning from space missions, space station expeditions or from bed rest studies of up to 70 days.

Bloomberg and his team developed the Functional Task Test (FTT), which identifies mission critical tasks that may impact astronauts’ movement and performance immediately after transition to a higher gravity environment.

“These tests are very operation-oriented and are related to different aspects of the mission and activities an astronaut would need to do after landing on the surface of Mars,” Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg found that functions that involved postural stability were the most difficult for participants. He and his team are now investigating whether countermeasures can be taken during flight to help “train the brain to become more adaptable,” Bloomberg said.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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