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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A lack of hard data on the effects of radiation on astronauts — and how to mitigate the health threat — could set back NASA's plans to send people to Mars in the 2030s, experts tell Axios.

Why it matters: Radiation, particularly in the form of high-energy galactic cosmic rays, can increase an astronaut's risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular issues and even cognitive deficits.

  • At the moment, NASA places a strict limit on the amount of radiation astronauts can be exposed to in their lifetimes, but a trip to Mars could require that limit to be exceeded.

The big question: Even though researchers have been studying the effects of radiation in lab experiments for years, they still don't know how radiation exposure on a months-long trip to Mars might impact astronauts.

What's new: In a study this week in the journal eNeuro, researchers exposed mice to a chronic, low dose of radiation over about 6 months, attempting to mimic the amount of radiation astronauts might experience during a flight to the red planet.

  • They found the radiation exposure could cause anxiety, memory issues and difficulty with decision-making.

But, but, but: Some researchers say there are broader limitations to characterizing the threat posed by radiation in space.

  • The type of radiation used for the new study isn't the same as cosmic rays, and the overall amount of radiation in the study is higher than what people would experience during a trip to Mars, Francis Cucinotta, a radiation researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas told Axios in an interview.
  • Mice and rats in general also aren't perfect analogues for astronauts, and there isn't a sure-fire way of mimicking the exact radiation a person experiences in space on Earth.
  • It's not just about radiation on its own. Scientists are worried about a number of health concerns — including nutrition, sleep deprivation and muscle loss — that, in combination with radiation, could present serious health issues that astronauts will need to deal with millions of miles from Earth.
"We may never know until we send people, and they are going to be guinea pigs. These people are going to take a chance."
— Dorit Donoviel, Baylor College of Medicine, to Axios

What to watch: NASA has looked into countermeasures like medication that could protect astronauts from the damage caused by radiation during a trip to Mars. However, Donoviel says that the agency needs to invest more heavily in those efforts to ensure the missions have the best chance of success.

The bottom line: The health threat posed by radiation is a serious one, and NASA may need to move more quickly to find effective ways to mitigate it if it wants to send humans to Mars in the coming years.

For those willing to risk their lives in myriad ways to go to space, radiation may be a secondary concern at best, even if it's a deal-breaker for NASA, former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria tells Axios.

  • “You’re taking a lot more immediate, and much more visible, kinds of risks by launching to space that I think that radiation — at least for me — didn’t enter into the equation very prominently," Lopez-Alegria said.

The big picture: Astronauts aren't the only professionals with this kind of drive to continue doing their jobs at all costs. Elite athletes, for example, push past pain and injury in order to continue competing.

  • Lopez-Alegria — who has spent more than 250 days in space — explained that because the risks posed by radiation are more likely to affect someone later in life, it isn't something astronauts tend to worry about.

Details: Overall, NASA won't allow astronauts to receive a lifetime radiation dose that would raise their risk of contracting a fatal cancer by more than 3%, but the total acceptable dose differs depending on who you are.

  • Female astronauts, for example, have a lower threshold than men due to the way NASA calculates risk, leading some to say the agency's limits are discriminatory because it restricts the amount women can fly.

Go deeper

Updated 20 mins ago - World

Myanmar's deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to 4 years in prison

An anti-coup protest in Yangon, Myanmar.Photo: Hkun Lat/Getty Images

A Myanmar court sentenced the country's ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Monday to four years in prison on charges of "inciting public unrest" and breaking COVID-19 protocols, per the New York Times.

Why it matters: It's the first of several verdicts that could result in the 76-year-old Nobel laureate being imprisoned for the rest of her life.

2 hours ago - World

Pope Francis denounces European governments' migrant response

Pope Francis adresses refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on Sunday. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis criticized European countries' response to migrants and asylum seekers during his visit to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos Sunday.

Why it matters: The pope said "migration is a humanitarian crisis that concerns everyone," but little had changed in the global response to displaced peoples since his first visit to Lesbos five years ago, per a transcript of his remarks. "Human lives, real people, are at stake. ... let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!"

Chris Cuomo accuser: On-air "hypocrisy" spurred report

Journalist Chris Cuomo. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images

A woman who accused fired CNN journalist Chris Cuomo of sexual misconduct said Sunday she decided to come forward after learning of his comments about women who made similar accusations about his brother. He denies her allegations.

Why it matters: Her attorney Debra Katz said in a statement that she heard "the hypocrisy" of his on-air words about his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and was "disgusted by his efforts to try to discredit these women," so "retained counsel to report his serious sexual misconduct against her to CNN."