Dec 10, 2019 - Science

Stopping a Mars mission from messing with the mind

Illustration of an astronaut seated on a therapist couch.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Space agencies and scientists are testing new ways to mitigate the psychological effects of a trip to Mars.

Why it matters: One of the major limiting factors for a mission to Mars will be the human mind, experts agree.

  • In order to fly to the red planet, live there and return home, astronauts will need to deal with long bouts of isolation and delayed contact with mission control and family back on Earth.

What's happening: IBM, Airbus and the German Aerospace Center just launched CIMON-2 — an upgraded robotic assistant that can read a person’s tone of voice — to the International Space Station.

  • CIMON-2's creators think the robot could act as a sounding board for astronauts who are feeling stressed but don't necessarily want to talk to their crewmates about it during a trip in deep space, developer Matthias Biniok told Axios.

Researchers are also studying how the brain and body might change during long trips in space, affecting a person's cognition.

  • A group of eight polar explorers experienced changes in their brains that may have been brought about by 14 months in isolation, according to a small study co-authored by psychologist David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania and published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
  • Other scientists are looking into how radiation — considered by some to be the most serious health risk for astronauts going to Mars — might affect space explorers on a cognitive level.

The big picture: "From Mars, the Earth is seen as a dot, basically — a small dot; greenish, blue dot. So everything that is important to you, your history, your family, your culture, your country, becomes an insignificant point in the universe," University of California, San Francisco psychiatrist Nick Kanas told Axios in August.

  • Mission researchers emphasize the importance of a diverse crew to try to stave off psychological impacts. The thinking is they can work together well and keep each other interested and even entertained for months if not years at a time.
  • "We know that even in a high-fidelity simulation, when it goes long enough that if the agencies aren't very careful about who they select ahead of time ... I would expect that we're going to see maybe up to 50% or more of the crew develop some significant behavioral problems, psychological problems and physical problems during the mission," Dinges told Axios.

What's next: NASA may consider using its Gateway — the small space station the agency plans to place in orbit around the Moon in the coming years — as a simulation for a Mars mission in space.

Go deeper: Where to hunt for life on Mars

Editor's note: This piece was corrected to show Nick Kanas is a psychiatrist (not a psychologist).

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