Your Brain on Mars ft. Physics Girl!

This is Mark Watney. He’s an astronaut who’s
been living on Mars for just over a year – an Earth year. Watney didn’t intend to stay on Mars for
that long. He was part of the Ares 3 mission, which was hit by a violent storm soon after
landing. The rest of the crew evacuated, and Watney was left behind. This is the story of The Martian, a film based
on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel. The novel and film are pretty scientifically accurate. Living
on the red planet isn’t easy, and Watney does a amazing job of surviving on Mars, despite
the odds. The atmosphere on Mars is 95% carbon dioxide
and is about 80 times thinner than Earth’s atmosphere. It’s as good as a vacuum to
your vitals. If you were exposed to the atmosphere, your saliva, tears, skin moisture and the
water in the alveoli of your lungs would boil away. That’s right Physics Girl. So Watney lives
in a pressurised environment with an oxygenator and atmospheric regulator. But even with this equipment, there’s still
a lot of weird things that can happen to you if you live on Mars, or elsewhere in space. During the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, Buzz
Aldrin reported seeing strange flashes of light. Later experiments found the high-energy
charged particles that make up cosmic rays were causing astronauts, just like Buzz, to
perceive these flashes. Cosmic rays are a form of radiation, typically
very high-energy and often composed of protons. Some originate from our sun, some from outside
our solar system, possibly from the supernovae of massive stars. These light flashes perceived by astronauts
are called Cosmic ray visual phenomena. The thing is, the light flashes aren’t real.
You can’t see cosmic rays. The cosmic rays pass through the astronaut’s eyes, mess
with their optic nerve and make them think they are seeing flashes of light. And studies have found that astronauts often
have poorer vision after space flight. Increased pressure and fluid shifts in their heads can
cause structural changes in the eye. On Earth our magnetic field protects us against
radiation from cosmic rays. It protects astronauts on the International Space Station too, they’re
only about 400 km away. But on further missions, like ones to Mars, cosmic rays mess with more
than your vision. In one study, researchers exposed mice to
small doses of the kind of radiation people would experience on a nine month trip to Mars. You know, cosmic rays. Typically very high-energy
and often composed of protons. After 6 weeks, the researchers noticed changes
in the structure of the mice’s brain cells. They had fewer dendrites, the little branches
that carry electrical pulses of information from cell to cell. The mice became confused
more easily and were less likely to explore. The researchers suggested if this happened
in astronauts, it could impair their ability to problem solve. Tests have also shown astronauts can lose
1% of their bone density per month in space, compared with the 1% we lose a year on earth.
They have disturbances in their sleep, balance and blood pressure which all adds up to be
pretty stressful. Astronauts are incredibly brave and despite
all this, they go into space all the time and many live very long lives. But we’ve
only been as far away as the Moon. What would happen if people travelled to, say, Mars? There’s lot of interest in going, from NASA’s
Orion spacecraft to SpaceX’s Mars Colonial Transporter, but remember that Mark Watney,
unfortunately, is a fictional character. We haven’t been there yet, and we don’t know
what it might do to our brains – psychologically or physiologically. According to NASA, a manned mission to Mars
would take roughly nine months to get there, and nine months to get back. And the astronauts
would have to stay on Mars for three months before Earth and Mars realign for a return
trip. So we’re looking at a 21 month mission. We have started preparing for a manned Mars
mission. Mars500 was an isolation experiment that ran for 520 days in a pressurised facility
in Russia. From 2007 to 2011, three crews lived and worked in a mock spacecraft. Mars500 was the longest simulated space mission,
ever. As missions increase in distance and duration, there’s a constant dependence
on automated life-support systems, a higher degree of isolation and confinement and the
lack of short-term rescue possibilities in case of emergencies. The astronauts on this mission did a lot of
psychological evaluations before the mission, during and after. The European Space Agency
described the most useful personality traits for an astronaut as tolerance, sympathy, balance
in time spent in a group and alone, and a sense of humour. And these are some traits
looked for in astronaut selection. NASA psychologists add that good astronaut candidates are easygoing,
have good social skills and are also very resilient. Going back to The Martian, we can see these
traits in Mark Watney. His resilience, easy going nature and sense of humour all contribute
to his story. And we can see these traits in astronauts
in real life space dramas. Like when Apollo 13’s oxygen tank exploded
or when astronauts had to fix Hubble’s faulty mirror. There is some exhilarating science
behind these two space “rescues”. Follow me over to Physics Girl where Dianna
explores the most epic space rescues
in history. And subscribe to BrainCraft, for a new brainy
episode every week.

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