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Travelling to Mars may speed up the ageing process, scientists fear

Humans taking the 40 million mile trip to Mars may age faster than people remaining on Earth, according to scientists, who are hunting for a way to stop it happening.

Experts from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, will study the first all civilian crew to visit the International Space Station next month, before and after their trip.

They are looking for early signs of senescence, a process where a cell ages and stops dividing, but doesn’t die, so builds up in tissue throughout the body.

While the crew’s 10-day jaunt to the International Space Station won’t pose a serious threat of senescence, it is hoped that spotting early signs could help in longer haul trips. 

The Axiom Mission 1 will send former NASA astronaut and Axiom vice president Michael López-Alegría to space as commander, alongside three others

Experts from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, will study the first all civilian crew to visit the International Space Station next month, before and after their trip (Stock image)

Experts from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, will study the first all civilian crew to visit the International Space Station next month, before and after their trip (Stock image)

WHAT IS CELL SENESCENCE? 

Cellular senescence is a phenomenon linked to the end of cell division.

Cells constantly experience stress and damage from various sources, and responses range from recovery, to the death of the cell.

Sometimes, a cell will enter a permanent cell-cycle arrest that is termed cellular senescence.

This is where it is still alive, but unable to divide and reproduce, meaning it sits there, leaking chemicals that have been linked to inflammation, and is never cleared away from the body.

When young, the process of senescence alerts the immune system to damage – with the immune system clearing the cells away in the process.

However, as humans age, the immune system loses the ability to sweep away these harmful cells from the body.

Over time they build up and contribute to the process of ageing, and increasing the risk of disease. 

‘If we see senescence under these conditions, we would want to do some work in preparation for a longer mission,’ study lead Dr James Kirkland told The Telegraph.

NASA and China hope to send astronauts on the 40 million mile journey to Mars in the 2030s, and Elon Musk is confident of reaching the Red Planet this decade. 

At the end of February, Axiom space will take a crew of four civilian astronauts to the International Space Station in a chartered SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

The Axiom Mission 1 will send former NASA astronaut and Axiom vice president Michael López-Alegría to space as commander, alongside three others.

They are US-based entrepreneur and non-profit activist investor Larry Connor as pilot, alongside Canadian investor and philanthropist Mark Pathy, and impact investor and philanthropist Eytan Stibbe of Israel. 

The Mayo Clinic team will take blood and urine samples from the four members of the civilian crew, and hunt for signs of senescence.

The goal is to find out whether routine spaceflight is linked to cell senescence, and if it is, that would require further intervention before anyone launches for Mars.

The ISS sits within the Van Allen belt, a protective magnetic bubble surrounding the Earth, that reduces the impact of solar radiation.

This means that travellers to the ISS should be protected from the worst impact of spaceflight, in a way a crew going to Mars may not be.

‘This flight will give us an idea of whether routine spaceflight, without even going beyond the Van Allen belt, is associated with cell senescence,’ Dr Kirkland said.

‘If we see senescence even under these conditions, we would certainly want to do some work in preparation for a longer mission. Something will have to be worked out before or longer before interplanetary flights are really feasible.’

Earlier studies revealed that those travelling to the Moon were five times more likely to die from heart disease, than astronauts only going to the ISS in low Earth orbit. 

When humans get older, cells inside the body enter a state known as senescence, which makes them neither alive nor dead, according to the Mayo Clinic team. 

This state stops the body from replacing non-functioning cells, with them building up over time, pumping out chemicals that increase inflammation.

The Mayo Clinic team will take blood and urine samples from the four members of the civilian crew, and hunt for signs of senescence

The Mayo Clinic team will take blood and urine samples from the four members of the civilian crew, and hunt for signs of senescence

While the crew's ten day jaunt to the International Space Station won't pose a serious threat of senescence, its hoped spotting early signs can help in longer haul trips

While the crew’s ten day jaunt to the International Space Station won’t pose a serious threat of senescence, its hoped spotting early signs can help in longer haul trips

WHEN WILL HUMANS VISIT MARS? 

For decades humans have set their sights on stepping foot on Mars.

Every generation of NASA Astronaut since the Apollo moon landings has been told they may be the first to step foot on the Red Planet. 

The Artemis generation, those selected to go to the Moon this decade, are the first where this may well be the case. 

NASA plans to land the first humans on Mars by the middle of the 2030s, which is a similar timeframe to China.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a more ambitious timeline, hoping to send a Starship, with crew, to build a base on Mars by the end of this decade. 

They’re important in youth as they cluster around injuries to signal to the immune system where damage needs repairing. They are cleared away after youth when someone is still young, but as people age the ability to sweep them away is lost.

When cells are under stress, they deform, which causes senescence – this includes conditions of high levels of radiation or zero gravity.

According to the team, low gravity conditions changes the shape of a cell, and high G-forces, including during take off, add to DNA cellular senescence.  

‘The crew on the ISS will be inside the Van Allen belt but the real worry is what’s going to happen if there is a Mars mission, and if there is a solar flare, because then you’re dealing with atomic radiation,’ Dr Kirkland told The Telegraph.

‘We’ve found in preliminary studies very low doses of atomic radiation can drive a cell into senescence at much lower levels than x-rays or gamma rays.

‘And, with atomic radiation, it could pass right through the spacecraft: it’s hard to stop. So if there’s a Mars mission this could really be a major problem. 

‘I’m a physician, not a space scientist, so my view is biased, but I’d say the health problem is pretty darn bad, and I’m very worried after what I’ve seen.’

As well as testing on the crew themselves, Mayo Clinic experts are sending isolated human cells in a pre-senescent state in incubators – designed to see if the ISS conditions push them into early dormancy.

NASA and China hope to send astronauts on the 40 million mile journey to Mars in the 2030s, and Elon Musk is confident of reaching the Red Planet this decade. NASA Artemis astronauts, pictured, one of whom may visit Mars in the future

NASA and China hope to send astronauts on the 40 million mile journey to Mars in the 2030s, and Elon Musk is confident of reaching the Red Planet this decade. NASA Artemis astronauts, pictured, one of whom may visit Mars in the future

‘The cells are on the verge of senescence, and we want to see if zero gravity, plus G forces and a high carbon dioxide atmosphere in the capsule plus the radiation will drive human cultured cells that are pre-senescent into a state of senescence. We’ll have similar control cells back on Earth,’ the team explained.

If they do find spaceflight causes cellular ageing, it isn’t the end of the road for Mars trips, according to the authors, who say there are multiple clinical trials under way in drugs that may fight the process.

These drugs, known as senolytics, can improve the physical function in people suffering from diseases caused by cell senescence. 

EXPLAINED: THE $100 BILLION INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION SITS 250 MILES ABOVE THE EARTH

The International Space Station (ISS) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

It has been permanently staffed by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since November 2000. 

Crews have come mainly from the US and Russia, but the Japanese space agency JAXA and European space agency ESA have also sent astronauts. 

The International Space Station has been continuously occupied for more than 20 years and has been expended with multiple new modules added and upgrades to systems

The International Space Station has been continuously occupied for more than 20 years and has been expended with multiple new modules added and upgrades to systems 

Research conducted aboard the ISS often requires one or more of the unusual conditions present in low Earth orbit, such as low-gravity or oxygen.

ISS studies have investigated human research, space medicine, life sciences, physical sciences, astronomy and meteorology.

The US space agency, NASA, spends about $3 billion (£2.4 billion) a year on the space station program, with the remaining funding coming from international partners, including Europe, Russia and Japan.

So far 244 individuals from 19 countries have visited the station, and among them eight private citizens who spent up to $50 million for their visit.

There is an ongoing debate about the future of the station beyond 2025, when it is thought some of the original structure will reach ‘end of life’.

Russia, a major partner in the station, plans to launch its own orbital platform around then, with Axiom Space, a private firm, planning to send its own modules for purely commercial use to the station at the same time. 

NASA, ESA, JAXA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are working together to build a space station in orbit around the moon, and Russia and China are working on a similar project, that would also include a base on the surface. 

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