Death by space in the movies is usually caused by such dramatic events as explosion from lack of atmospheric pressure. In reality neither space’s vacuum nor its near absolute zero temperatures are the greatest danger. A far more sinister menace to those brave enough to enter its domain is cosmic radiation.
Without Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field to protect them, space explorers of the future face exposure to cancer-causing radiation of different kinds. The longer they are exposed, such as on NASA’s currently proposed three year mission to Mars in 2035, the higher their chances of becoming seriously ill. Now researchers have discovered another threat to astronaut health: brain damage.
When stars explode, they propel through space high-mass, high energy particles known as HZEs. A team of researchers including M. Kerry O’ Banion of the University of Rochester Medical Center, New York, studied the effects of iron particles of this type on mouse brains. They found that exposed mice experienced behavioural and physical decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease, such as higher than normal accumulation of beta amyloid plaques in their brains.
Space pioneers won’t only have to face immediate dangers in their voyages to other planets, they will also have to accept unpredictable long-term effects on their health.