Space is deadly. NASA’s Artemis mission will help us learn how to survive it
by Neel Dhanesha  /  Nov 16, 2022

“…This time, there aren’t any humans riding on the Space Launch System, the giant new rocket that’s powering this mission. Instead, there is a whole lot of scientific equipment. And most of it is there to try to answer one question: What does space do to the human body? This feels a bit like a question we should already know the answer to, given humanity has collectively been strapping people to the tops of rockets since Yuri Gagarin made history in 1961. But the longest anyone has ever spent in space is about 14 months, and the only people to have ever left Earth’s magnetic field — which protects us from most cosmic radiation — are the 24 men who flew to the moon on the Apollo missions in the 1960s and ’70s.

There is still a ton space scientists don’t know about the impacts of space on the human body, including the impacts of space radiation on the human body, and what can be done to mitigate it. Artemis is supposed to be the beginning of NASA’s deep-space ambitions, and going to Mars would be a multi-year roundtrip journey. To keep those humans safe, we need to figure out what might happen to their bodies along the way. “What we really need to know is the interaction between the radiation and biology,” said Kris Lehnhardt, element scientist for Exploration Medical Capability at the NASA Johnson Space Center. “That field of study, radiobiology, is something that we do not have a lot of experience with.” Space is hard to reach and very good at killing us when we get there. To help figure out just how good, the Orion crew module sitting on top of the Space Launch System will have a few “passengers” on board.

Deep space radiation is very different from what we experience on Earth. At home, our planet’s magnetic field protects us from things like solar energetic particles, or SEPs — essentially extremely fast protons that are flung out by our sun, like shotgun pellets, and can shred our cells and DNA, potentially causing all kinds of problems. Because of how few astronauts have left Earth’s protective magnetic bubble — known as the magnetosphere — scientists don’t really know how prolonged exposure to it might affect the human body. Cancer is the most obvious risk, but researchers like Lehnhardt are also interested in seeing how that radiation might affect the human heart or brain. Which is why even though there won’t be any humans on board Orion, there will be some very sophisticated stand-ins. Three high-tech manikins — the technical term for, well, research mannequins — are going to be riding on Orion.

“Helga (top, blue) and Zohar (bottom, outfitted with the AstroRad vset)”

Their names are Helga, Zohar, and Commander Moonikin Campos, and they’re all a little bit different: Moonikin Campos is, for the most part, a test dummy stuffed into a spiffy new orange spacesuit, called the Orion Crew Survival System Suit, and outfitted with specialized sensors to measure acceleration and vibration, and radiation. Helga and Zohar, meanwhile, consist of only a head and torso, and they’re made of stuff that’s very much like real bones, organs, and soft tissues. Both of them were given female forms because women usually are affected more by space radiation in some organs, such as the breasts — and because, unlike the Apollo missions, which consisted exclusively of white men, future Artemis missions will take the first women and people of color to the moon. These manikins are an important first step in making that a reality.

“Mea­sur­ing man­nequin Hel­ga”

Helga and Zohar are fundamentally twins, with one big difference: Zohar will be wearing a radiation protection vest called AstroRad, while Helga will not. Both manikins are absolutely packed with sensors that will let scientists measure internal radiation as part of an experiment called the MATROSHKA AstroRad Radiation Experiment, which is a joint venture of NASA, the Israeli Space Agency, and the German Aerospace Center. Over the course of their three weeks in space, Helga and Zohar will collect important data on what kind of radiation they’re being exposed to and whether shielding technology like AstroRad might be able to help future astronauts avoid the worst impacts of events like solar storms. “We as humans are pretty adaptable and given the right tools and processes, we can explore basically any place on Earth as well as hopefully in space,” Lehnhardt said. “Ultimately, our hope is that we can use our big brains to find solutions to all of the problems and challenges that are in front of us.”

Helga, Zohar, and Moonikin Campos are only going to be in space for three weeks. But Artemis I is also taking along a few much smaller passengers that will be staying in space for good: yeast cells. “Yeast happens to be very similar to humans and how they respond to radiation,” said Sergio Santa Maria, a project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and the lead scientist on a mission called BioSentinel, which is sending a CubeSat (essentially a very small satellite) into space with Artemis I. Once in space, it will settle into an orbit around the sun. It will be the first-ever satellite to carry biological matter to deep space, and the first study of biological responses to deep space radiation in almost 50 years — the last time was Apollo 17, in 1972. Yeast is a handy tool for this kind of project, for a few reasons. To begin with, it’s been used for years as a stand-in for human cells in biomedical studies, and the way its DNA breaks down when exposed to radiation is very much like how ours does.

“The ‘crew’ of the Artemis I mis­sion to the Moon”

It’s also just logistically handy for a mission like Artemis, with its multiple delays: Unlike other organisms, it can be stored indefinitely in its dry, inactive state. Once it reaches its orbit around the sun, that yeast will be rehydrated, and Santa Maria and his colleagues will monitor its growth, along with the amount and types of radiation it’s being exposed to. A new yeast culture will be activated every few months to see whether more exposure to radiation has any effect on growth. “We do not know what to expect from this long exposure to all kinds of particles at the same time,” Santa Maria said, “but we hope that we will learn more and provide information for future missions.” The experiment’s going to have implications beyond just human impacts, too: Yeast is used for making things like yogurt and probiotics, which means it could be handy for producing food during long-term missions of the types like a moon base or a trip to Mars.

Seeing how well it does in space over a long period — the satellite will just stay orbiting the sun indefinitely — could essentially help with the space version of meal prep. The time scales are just a little bit longer than we might be used to here on Earth. The data that Helga, Zohar, Moonikin Campos, and the yeast in BioSentinel send back to researchers on Earth is going to be invaluable as NASA plans its next missions to the moon and beyond. NASA doesn’t just have to figure out how radiation can impact future missions. Space is deadly — don’t forget, it’s an airless vacuum that can very efficiently kill us — and poses a plethora of health risks, from the impact of microgravity on our bones and eyes to how the confines of spacecraft can impact our mental health. And all of that happens even before we land somewhere: Once future missions reach the moon, astronauts will have to deal with the fact that moon dust is at least a little bit toxic…”

by Passant Rabie / June 22, 2021

“As the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon, it was one small step for man and a whole lot of dust for man to deal with. Dust from the Moon’s surface got into camera lenses, caused radiators to overheat, and even damaged the astronauts’ spacesuits. As NASA plans a human return to the Moon through the Artemis mission, the space agency is developing ways to mitigate the lunar dust so that it doesn’t interfere with equipment and ensure a more sustainable stay on the Moon. NASA didn’t even realize they had a dust problem until they landed the first man on the Moon.

Erica Montbach, project manager of the lunar dust mitigation project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, says that images from the Apollo mission revealed the damage caused by the dust. “There was some of the equipment that overheated because the lunar dust prevented the heat from radiating away as it was supposed to and mechanical clogging of equipment,” Montbach tells Inverse. “Things started to not work.” The dust also got into the cabin screen of the spacecraft, and the astronauts’ spacesuits had significant tears from the dust. Aside from that, the astronauts potentially breathing in the dust could pose a health risk. The problem comes not just from the amount of dust, but from its very structure.

On Earth, dust particles are smoothed out through the process of erosion, whether it be running water from rivers or winds that round out dust’s rough edges. But on the Moon, this process doesn’t take place, which makes lunar dust sharp and angular. “The lunar dust comes from the lunar regolith, which are the rocks and minerals that are on the Moon, and they tend to have more jagged edges on the fine particulate,” Montbach says. Lunar dust also behaves differently. The dust on the Sun-facing side of the Moon is affected by solar radiation which gives it a positive electrical charge. As a result, the dust on the Moon would cling to everything sort of like static. “There’s that static factor that makes the lunar dust so difficult to prevent from damaging the equipment and the materials that go to the Moon,” Montbach says. On the Moon, any activity on the surface would also cause large amounts of dust to kick up. In 2019, NASA created the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative (LSII) to come up with new technologies needed for future exploration of the Moon, with dust mitigation being one of the main priorities.

The initiative came up with active and passive mitigation technologies for different kinds of equipment like rovers, power systems, spacesuits, and other types of hardware that NASA would send to the Moon. Sharon Miller, the dust shedding material program’s principal investigator at NASA Glenn, says the combination of the passive and active techniques will allow the dust to be removed from the surface area while reducing the amount of power needed to remove it. “The equipment that we’re using is a variety of things from the different NASA centers,” Miller tells Inverse. Some of the ideas that are currently being developed include ion-beamed deposited coating or laser patterned surfaces.

The team has started developing these materials and testing them in the lab, experimenting with different textures and combinations. NASA is then planning on testing these experimental solutions on the surface of the Moon starting in 2023. “The solutions that we’re working on are ‘leave no damage behind’ type of solutions,” Montbach says. “These are things that will only affect the equipment and prevent the equipment from being damaged by the dust, but will not do anything specifically to change what is on the Moon.” The solutions are not only for missions like Apollo, but are designed for a longer, more sustainable stay on the Moon as NASA plans on building a lunar base on the Moon. “A lot of what has begun this interest in this need is to try and find solutions not only for shorter missions but potentially that would work for longer missions as well,” Montbach says.”

Breathing lunar dust could pose health risk to future astronauts
by Lauren Lipuma / 3 May 2018

“Future astronauts spending long periods of time on the Moon could suffer bronchitis and other health problems by inhaling tiny particles of dust from its surface, according to new research. A new study finds simulated lunar soil is toxic to human lung and mouse brain cells. Up to 90 percent of human lung cells and mouse neurons died when exposed to dust particles that mimic soils found on the Moon’s surface. The results show breathing toxic dust, even in minute quantities, could pose a health hazard to future astronauts traveling to the Moon, Mars or other airless planetary bodies.

Space agencies know exposure to the space environment and zero gravity can be harmful to human health, but planetary dust poses an additional risk that has been mostly overlooked, according to the researchers. “There are risks to extraterrestrial exploration, both lunar and beyond, more than just the immediate risks of space itself,” said Rachel Caston, a geneticist at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in Stony Brook, New York and lead author of the new study published in GeoHealth, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. Lunar dust caused reactions similar to hay fever in astronauts who visited the Moon during the Apollo missions. Their experience coupled with the new study’s results suggest prolonged exposure to lunar dust could impair airway and lung function, according to Bruce Demple, a biochemist at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and senior author of the new study. If the dust induces inflammation in the lungs, it could increase the risk of more serious diseases like cancer, he said. “If there are trips back to the Moon that involve stays of weeks, months or even longer, it probably won’t be possible to eliminate that risk completely,” Demple said.

“possible health effects of breathing lunar dust, in both the short- and long-term.”

The Moon has no atmosphere, so its soil is constantly bombarded by charged particles from the upper layers of the Sun that stream through space. These charged particles cause lunar soil to become electrostatically charged, like static cling on clothing. When U.S. astronauts visited the Moon during the Apollo missions, they brought lunar soil into the command module when it clung to their spacesuits. After inhaling the fine dust, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt described having a reaction he called “lunar hay fever” – sneezing, watery eyes and a sore throat. The Apollo astronauts’ symptoms were short lived, but researchers wanted to know how lunar dust could affect astronauts’ health long term and if it could cause problems similar to those caused by toxic dust on Earth. Previous research has shown breathing toxic dust from volcanic eruptions, dust storms and coal mines can cause bronchitis, wheezing, eye irritation and scarring of lung tissue. Dust particles can accumulate in a person’s airways and the smallest particles can infiltrate alveoli, the tiny sacs where carbon dioxide is exchanged for oxygen in the lungs. Dust can also damage cells’ DNA, which can cause mutations and lead to cancer, according to previous research.

“Lunar soil simulant”

In the new study, Caston and her colleagues exposed human lung cells and mouse brain cells to several types of lunar soil simulants. Samples of lunar soil are too scarce and valuable to use in everyday experiments, so the researchers used dust samples from Earth that resemble soil found in lunar highlands and the Moon’s volcanic plains. Caston grew the cells under controlled conditions and exposed them to the various types of dust. She counted how many cells were left and measured whether the simulants caused DNA damage. She found all the simulant types killed or damaged the cells’ DNA to some degree. Simulants ground to a powder fine enough to be inhaled killed up to 90 percent of both cell types. The simulants killed the human lung cells so effectively the researchers couldn’t measure the DNA damage. The simulants also caused significant DNA damage in mouse neurons. The results indicate lunar soil could cause health problems for humans spending long periods of time on the Moon or other airless bodies, according to the researchers. When inhaled, the dust could irritate the throat, lungs and eyes of future astronauts. Over a long period of time, the continuing damage, irritation and inflammation would increase the risk of more serious disease, including cancer, Demple said. The researchers are unsure how the simulants kill cells, but they suspect they could be initiating an inflammatory response within the cell or generating free radicals, which strip electrons from molecules and prevent them from functioning properly.”

NASA could build a future lunar base from 3D-printed moon-dust bricks
by ANDREW PAUL / OCT 27, 2022

“NASA hopes to take us back to the moon for an extended stay via its Artemis lunar program, but lots of logistics still need to be worked out before we can safely set up on the moon for the long haul. One such hurdle is the actual material astronauts will use to construct a permanent lunar base, which will require a host of engineering considerations we normally never need to think about down here on Earth. Thanks to recent breakthroughs, however, Artemis organizers could at least save themselves a lot work of schlepping materials back and forth between Earth and the moon by 3D-printing base camp building blocks directly on the lunar surface using debris and saltwater.

According to an announcement earlier this week via the University of Central Florida, a team from the school’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering developed a new construction material composed partly of lunar regolith—the loose rocks, dust, and other debris covering the Moon’s surface. Using both 3D printing and a method called binder jet technology (BJT) in which a liquid binding agent (in this case saltwater) is infused into a bed of moon powder supplied by UCF’s Exolith Lab, Associate Professor Ranajay Ghosh’s group was able to produce bricks capable of withstanding pressure of up to 250 million times greater than our own atmosphere.

Although the initial cylindrical bricks produced are comparably weak, blasting them with 1200 degrees Celsius heat strengthened them enough to be a viable tool in the eventual structures NASA hopes to establish on the Moon, such as a modular cabin and mobile home. “This research contributes to the ongoing debate in space exploration community on finding the balance between in-situ extraterrestrial resource utilization versus material transported from Earth,” Ghosh said in UCF’s announcement. “The further we develop techniques that utilize the abundance of regolith, the more capability we will have in establishing and expanding base camps on the moon, Mars, and other planets in the future.” Apart from the structural stability, one of the chief benefits would be a dramatic reduction in material costs for the Artemis lunar base. It’s a lot cheaper to hypothetically produce at least some of your needs on the moon instead of lugging them up via extremely expensive shuttle launches. As such, the regolith bricks could also bode well for future bases on Mars, too. It definitely beats a suggestion last year from a Manchester University student that involved constructing abodes using human blood and urine as their binding agent.”

Mars Housing May Be Built With Astronaut Blood and Piss
by Chris Young  /  Sep 14, 2021

“A new type of cheaper housing has been proposed for future Mars colonists. All the astronauts need to do is pay in blood. Researchers from the University of Manchester made the proposal — we promise this isn’t the plot of a 90s straight-to-VHS sci-fi horror movie — as a means to greatly reduce the cost and increase the speed of construction for future off-world colonies. “In a paper published in Materials Today Bio, they detail how extra-terrestrial dust can be mixed with the blood, urine, and other bodily fluids of astronauts to build walls that would protect them from radiation and meteor strikes. And the process could also “potentially solve a life-threatening emergency akin to the Apollo 13 disaster,” Dr. Aled Roberts, lead author on the study, tells us in an interview via email.

In their study, the University of Manchester researchers demonstrated how human serum albumin (HSA), a common protein from blood plasma, and urine, could be used as a binding agent for extra-terrestrial dust, turning it into a material stronger than ordinary concrete. The researchers state that the blood plasma protein required for the material could be safely extracted from astronauts multiple times a week using an existing procedure similar to blood donation. HSA is the most abundant protein in blood plasma and it replenishes at a rate of 12 – 25 g per day. The question is, would astronauts be able to maintain the mental and physical strength needed for space missions if they have blood plasma extracted several times per week?

“I think the physical and mental health effects will be the main concern if this technique was applied,” Roberts tells us. “Micro-gravity is already very taxing on the body, causing problems such as muscle and bone degeneration, and any procedure that further damages astronaut health will likely be completely unacceptable. It’s not clear if the gravity on Mars (about 38% the strength of Earth’s) will cause the same health effects as microgravity (i.e. in space), this will need to be determined experimentally.” Crew diets would also “need to be supplemented with additional protein, calories, and water to make up for the deficit arising from HSA extraction,” Roberts says. As future missions to Mars are likely to have overcapacity in food supplies for redundancy, the researchers don’t expect the supplemented diet to be a problem.

“A hypothetical block diagram depicting how HSA could be produced in vivo from in situ resources available on Mars, and — technological advancements permitting — eventually supplemented or replaced with an ultra-high reliability self-contained bioreactor”

HSA extraction could also be halted in the case of an unforeseen problem reducing a space colonies’ food supply. With China having recently set its sights on sending humans to Mars in the 2030s and SpaceX’s Mars-bound Starship nearing its maiden voyage, scientists are racing to find new construction solutions for future space colonies. Sending all of the required materials from Earth would be prohibitively expensive — the cost of transporting a payload with the weight of a brick to Mars is currently close to $2 million — meaning innovative processes are required to enable the construction of housing using on-site resources such as Martian regolith (loose inorganic heterogeneous deposits).

“Visible light images of recombinant spider silk-based ERBs: (a) LHS-1 and (b) MGS-1. FE-SEM images of recombinant spider silk-based ERBs: (c) LHS-1 ×100 magnification, (d) LHS-1×5000 magnification (e) MGS-1×100 magnification, (f) MGS-1×5000 magnification.”

An added benefit of the University of Manchester researchers’ proposal is that it could be used in emergency situations — if a human is present, you always have access to the valuable resources in their bodily fluids. “Understanding the potential uses and limitations of such materials could be critical in an emergency situation that requires flexibility and ingenuity to solve,” Roberts says. “The significant time delay between Earth and Mars, both in terms of logistical resupply (~26 months) and communication (up to 44 minutes), means that the ability for astronauts to devise solutions to novel threats and implement emergency repairs with the resources at hand will be critical to mission safety.”

“Life-cycle process flow diagram for HSA/Urea-based ERBs”

 In other words, as Roberts puts it, knowledge gained from the new study could “potentially solve a life-threatening emergency akin to the Apollo 13 disaster.” In laboratory tests run by the University of Manchester team, the blood plasma protein-infused material, dubbed AstroCrete, showed compressive strengths as high as 25 MPa (Megapascals). This falls within the range of traditional concrete at 20-32 MPa. However, by adding urea — a biological waste product excreted through urine, sweat, and tears — the researchers found that they could increase the strength of AstroCrete by over 300 percent. The resulting material showed a compressive strength of close to 40 MPa, making it much stronger than traditional concrete. The scientists calculated that, with a crew of six astronauts, more than a half tonne of AstroCrete could be produced over the course of a two-year mission on Mars. In theory, each crew member could provide the resources to expand a habitat enough to house an additional crew member, meaning that housing could be doubled with every crewed mission to Mars.

“Visible light images of the 3D-printed HSA-ERB based on MGS-1. (a) after
fabrication, (b) during compression testing, and (c) after compression testing.”

While the findings are impressive, Roberts and his team’s proposal is one of many ideas that will be considered in the coming years as NASA and other space agencies collaborate with the scientific community on innovative solutions for utilizing and extracting resources in outer space. Whether AstroCrete makes it to Mars or not, “the findings could [also] have applications on Earth,” Roberts says. In fact, he has recently established a startup called DeakinBio that utilizes a similar process. Instead of blood, the company uses plant-based biopolymers as a binding agent to make a green alternative to cement, concrete, and ceramic materials — so you can rest easy that human blood isn’t about to be harvested for construction on Earth. Interestingly, Mars and blood are both red for the same reason: They both contain an abundance of iron oxide. So while the new proposal might not literally have astronauts signing housing leases in blood, there’s a strange poetry to the fact that future construction on the red planet may be bound by the blood of its human explorers. In a future space colony, the blood that courses through their veins could help to protect them against their deadly surroundings.”

Martian Colonists Could Use Their Own Blood to Produce Concrete
by George Dvorsky  /  September 14, 2021

“Provocative new research suggests the blood of astronauts, when mixed with Martian soil, can produce a durable concrete-like substance. Incredibly, other human bodily fluids were shown to make this biocomposite even stronger. The first colonists to arrive on Mars will need to build shelters and spaces for work, but the Red Planet isn’t exactly bustling with hardware stores and material suppliers. Ideally, the colonists could use some of the stuff that’s right there on Mars, such as regolith (soil), rocks, and water, the latter of which is sparse and hard to reach. Trouble is, these on-site resources don’t magically combine to produce viable construction materials. Of course, we could always ship a bunch of bricks to Mars, but that presents a ridiculously expensive proposition. Estimates suggest that it would cost upwards of $2 million to transport a single brick to the Red Planet, which, yeah, that’s not going to happen.

“Scheme depicting the typical fabrication procedure for producing HSA-based ERBs”

New research published in Materials Today Bio could potentially come to the rescue. The needed resources to produce a concrete-like substance could come directly from the colonists themselves, in the form of blood, sweat, tears, and urine, according to the study, co-authored by chemist Nigel Scrutton from the University of Manchester. “Scientists have been trying to develop viable technologies to produce concrete-like materials on the surface of Mars, but we never stopped to think that the answer might be inside us all along,” Aled Roberts, also from the University of Manchester, said in a statement. In tests, the researchers demonstrated that the human serum albumin (HSA)—a common protein found in blood plasma—can act as a binder when combined with simulated Martian and lunar regolith.

AstroCrete, as they’re calling it, proved to be as tough as concrete and in some cases even tougher. This idea didn’t come from thin air, as animal blood and other animal parts have historically been used to produce building materials, such as binders and glue. The ancient Romans, for example, used animal blood when making concrete. The researchers suspect the process of denaturation, or the curdling, of blood as being responsible for AstroCrete’s bonding power. In tests, the blood-based binder produced a concrete-like substance with compressive strengths reaching 25 Megapascals (MPa), which is comparable to ordinary concrete. Subsequent tests with the addition of urea—a biological waste product found in urine, sweat, and tears—further increased the compressive strength by 300%. The best combination of HSA and urea resulted in a compressive strength of 40 MPa, which is considerably stronger than normal concrete. Importantly, the team performed these tests on simulated Martian regolith; the real thing may not respond exactly in this way.

“We have not yet investigated how the urea would be extracted from the urine, as we are assessing whether this would really be necessary, because perhaps its other components could also be used to form the geopolymer concrete”

The scientists propose that AstroCrete could be used as an aggregate material to fill sandbags or to make heat-fused bricks. To get the required amounts of HSA, the crew would have to donate their blood twice a week. According to the paper, a two-year mission involving six colonists could allow for the production of 1,100 pounds (500 kg) of the high-strength version of AstroCrete. Should each crew member chip in with their blood and urine, the colony would have enough material to double the available housing over the two-year span, setting the stage for future newcomers. An advantage of AstroCrete is that, unlike “other proposed binder materials, HSA production does not require any additional synthesis technology such as bioreactors or synthetic polymer/resin production equipment—which would add additional mass (and therefore expense) to a Martian mission, as well as increase energy-, water- and workload-demand, and also be susceptible to component failure,” according to the study. What’s more, the team showed that the biocomposite can be 3D printed.

“Device for printing 3D samples”

As a relevant aside, the team considered other on-site human resources, such as nails, hair, dead skin cells, mucus, and poop. On the matter of poop, the team cited previous research showing that it’s not possible to make knives from frozen poop—a study that earned those scientists an Ig Nobel prize. Given that temperatures on Mars can get as low as -81 degrees F (-63 degrees C), Scrutton and his colleagues toyed with the idea of “frozen or desiccated faeces-based tools.” But as the researchers write in their study, “due to health and safety concerns, we were unable to explore human faeces-based [extraterrestrial regolith biocomposites] in this study.” Shame. But that sounds like a good idea for a future experiment. The new paper is really neat, but the scientists still need to demonstrate their process with true Martian regolith, as well as show that their process and biocomposite material will work under Martian conditions. What’s more, they’ll have to show that the regular extraction of blood from the crew members is safe. New techniques for producing building materials on Mars could arise in the coming years, perhaps making this blood-curdling idea obsolete.”




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