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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).

Go deeper

Right-wingers making McCarthy sweat for future Speaker post

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stands with his Republican colleagues outside the House on Nov. 17. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Right-wing elements in the Republican Party are complicating House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's attempts to become the next speaker of the House should the GOP take back the majority in 2022.

Why it matters: While McCarthy has worked carefully to build trust among the conservatives who tanked his chances at clinching the speakership in 2015, they're still circling ahead of the next Speaker vote in January 2023.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Congress sprints to meet crush of deadlines

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Congressional leaders have been pushing off vital action for months — and a lot of it will catch up with them in December, which begins Wednesday.

Driving the news: Funding for the federal government is set to expire at midnight on Friday. There are also consequential deadlines related to the debt limit, President Biden's agenda and annual actions like voting on the National Defense Authorization Act.

3 hours ago - World

U.S. fears Iran won’t scale back to 2015 nuclear deal

Officials gather in Vienna on Sept. 29 for the first day of renewed nuclear talks with Iran. Photo: EU Vienna Delegation/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

U.S. officials have extremely low expectations as world powers resume negotiations with Iran to curb its nuclear program, believing the Iranians aren't yet ready to negotiate seriously, Axios is told.

Driving the news: Senior officials in the U.S. intelligence community have assessed the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, thinks of his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, as a weak accommodationist who negotiated a bad deal with the U.S. and other world powers in 2015.