By Lisa Autz
Photo courtesy of WikiImages.
Shot out into interstellar space, two thrill-seeking human beings will float 75 million miles away from Earth in a sling shot mission to Mars. The man and woman expected to board the mission will face more than the grim fear of risking their lives, but also their own feces.
Yes, the 1166 cubic foot capsule spacecraft will be lined with bags of water, food, and human waste as an innovative shield from cosmic radiation.
The “Inspiration Mars” is a space initiation by the multimillionaire and first space tourist, Dennis Tito. In February 2013, Tito announced the ambitious human flyby to take place during the rare planetary alignment of Earth and Mars in 2018.
In an attempt to revamp America’s “can do” spirit towards human space missions, Tito hopes to live to see man venture to the Red Planet.
However, a great concern underlies the reality of such a dream.
The biological affects of high radiation levels from long duration space missions are still under intense scrutiny and research by NASA and aerospace scientists alike.
A mission like inspiration mars will take 501 days to complete which is about 50 times the Apollo 11 trip to the moon. This also means increased levels of radiation absorption.
Cary Zeitlin, a principal scientist at the Southwest Research Institute’s Space, Science and Engineering Division and lead author of “Measurements of Energetic Particle Radiation in Transit to Mars on the Mars Science Laboratory,” has conducted research on radiation dosages from deep-space cosmic rays and solar particle events.
Zeitlin sat down with BTR to discuss the radiation’s affects on the body and the effectiveness of using human waste products as a defense.
“Cosmic rays are a type of radiation such as x-rays given at a dentist office,” says Zeitlin. “However, when we are out in space it is a different type of radiation where the bare nuclei of heavy particles such as carbon and oxygen can accelerate through matter by supernova shock waves.”
Radiation exposure from the universe can either be of immediate risk or of chronic health risk. Stellar volts of radiation increase chances of developing cancer, cataracts, or central nerve damage. While immediate danger comes from burning coronal mass ejections from the sun.
Zeitlin goes on to explain that when developing a preventive system against cosmic rays, the main concern is weight as the heavier the material, the more costly it is to launch into space.
“So what we are looking at is: What is the most effective per unit mass?” says Zeitlin. “That’s where hydrogenous compounds tends to win but yet you need something structurally strong and aluminum fits the bill structurally. You want both, with as limited amount of mass as you are able to afford into space.”
The main ingredient of the crew member’s water, waste, and food supply is hydrogen. The team is analyzing technologies such as Water Walls, which combines renewable food with waste processing systems in order to shield radiation and sustain life in space.
The lining would be a 40-centimeter-thick bag of shield around the spacecraft. The method will use forward osmosis in order to filter things such as urine and solid waste into drinkable water.
This water treatment technology uses a semi-permeable membrane to allow water to pass through while blocking parasites, bacteria, and other larger molecules. The process also renews carbon dioxide into oxygen and generates food growth with green algae.
According to Zeitlin, similar processes have been used in the past with NASA. The sleeping quarters of crew members on past trips have had the area lined with polyethylene or CH2, a highly hydrogenous element as well.
The risk, however, is still too great for some to find the project viable to pursue.
In a attempt to calculate radiation dose or Sievert units in a space mission, a study by Southwest Research Institute found that two-thirds of a Sievert would be absorbed on a round trip to Mars. According to the National Cancer Institute, this exposure would raise the lifetime risk of dying from cancer from the average 21percent to 24.
“There is a diversity of opinion on what is an acceptable level of risk. How much we are willing to expose people to health risk and the ethics of risk limits when there are significant uncertainties,” says Zeitlin.
NASA’s standards for spaceflight radiation is limited to the exposure of cancer risk for its astronauts to three percent.
Edward J. Semones, NASA’s spaceflight radiation health officer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, told The New York Times that, “These are confirmatory measurements that will help us refine our models.”
The privately-funded “Inspiration Mars” has gained support from the Paragon Space Development Corporation, but is not affiliated with NASA and is waiting for approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
When asked why the Federal Aviation Administration had not yet approved the Inspiration Mars mission they responded saying, “The FAA will not discuss potential launch operators missions. All licenses must meet FAA rigorous safety, environmental, insurance and national security requirements.”
The Inspiration Mars foundation has not been able to verify information on much of the logistics of the flight such as who will be traveling, where they will be launching from, and which specific technologies will be used.
Recent public statements by the Inspiration Mars Foundation note changes in their projected launch date to 2021. Due to the complexity of the issue, the organization is reevaluating the mission.
Deanna Wilke, communication director of Inspiration Mars’ Griffin Communications Group, spoke with BTR about the risk factors of their mission.
“The risk is not unreasonable for manned-mission to Mars,” says Wilke. “It has not deterred our overall goal to launch the first human space flight to Mars.”