Gophers : What should we rebuild Mars
Man turned out to be the weakest link in the organization of long-distance space travel. With the technical side of the expedition to Mars, which NASA is planning in 2030, everything is more or less clear. Elon Musk regularly reports on progress in the creation of the Starship interplanetary spacecraft. Last fall, the US space agency presented the concept of a Martian base.
The competition was won by a joint project between Eckersley O’Callaghan engineers and Hassel Studio architectural firm. They proposed a very interesting idea: the first Martian builders will be robots. Intelligent machines will go to the Red Planet a few years before the arrival of the astronauts and build an outer shell that is somewhat reminiscent of a tortoise shell.
A rugged outer loop should protect residential and technical modules from radiation, dust storms, and small meteorites. It will be built using 3D printing technologies, and Martian soil will be used as a building material. When the astronauts arrive, they simply deploy the inflatable modules they brought with them under this roof. The result will be a small Martian village in which you can comfortably spend many years. After all, the Martian colonists will not be able to return to Earth for a long time.
Deep space is worse than Chernobyl
However, scientists have not yet decided the main question, how to safely deliver people to Mars? First, the crew is threatened by radiation. For 9 months of flight, astronauts will pick up approximately 300 millisieverts (mSv), mainly due to galactic cosmic radiation. For comparison, if the liquidators of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accumulated a dose of 250 mSv, they were no longer allowed to do dangerous work and were sent out of the disaster zone. According to scientists, the impact of radiation during a flight to Mars and back will reduce the average life expectancy of a space traveler by 2.5 years. It is possible to increase the thickness of the ship’s protective shell, but then the mass of the starship will have to be radically increased. But then it becomes unbearable. And so the mass of the ship will be fuel and oxidizer.
Another serious problem is that astronauts experience muscle atrophy at a catastrophic rate during flights. The reason is weightlessness, which inhibits muscle protein synthesis. In order to at least partially compensate for this effect, astronauts on the ISS spend several hours a day on simulators. But despite this, astronauts are taught to walk again after long flights – look at this video.
In order for the Martian colonists to keep themselves in shape, the ship, again, must be large so that there is enough space for a gym.
Science fiction writers also expressed the tempting idea that it would be great to send astronauts on long journeys in a state of suspended animation. It is estimated that such an option would make it possible to reduce the volume of the sealed compartment of the Martian ship by 5 times and take on board 3 times less cargo (including food and water). And besides, it would be possible to reliably protect sleeping capsules with screens.
The only problem is that people are not bears to hibernate.
However, the solution to this difficult task was suggested to scientists by … gophers. These rodents would be ideal astronauts.
And after hibernation, they have mating games according to the schedule …
When ground squirrels go into hibernation, their metabolism drops to 1 percent compared to the summer period, and their body temperature drops to almost freezing point. By slowing down their life processes, hibernating animals save a lot of energy. Gophers in this regard are the real champions, because, for example, bears have a much lower degree of metabolic slowdown – their body temperature drops from 37 to only 31 degrees.
– From the point of view of physiology, this is a mystery – how, after 6-9 months of inactivity (all this time the animals are deprived of protein intake), ground squirrels come out of hibernation full of physical strength, – explains one of the authors of the study , Matthew Regan, PhD from the University of Montreal. – After all, the only mating season of the year for ground squirrels begins in the spring immediately after leaving hibernation. This is a time of intense physical activity, on which reproductive success depends and rodents show amazing athletic form.
To solve the mystery of phenomenal abilities, Dr. Regan and his colleague conducted an interesting experiment. Scientists decided to see what happens to the metabolic products – metabolites, and labeled them with the carbon-13 isotope and the nitrogen-15 isotope. Usually metabolites are excreted from the body. However, in gophers, the body worked on the principle of non-waste production: special microbes in the intestines broke down waste products and returned them back to the body as material for building new cells.
All for biohacking, comrades!
How is this metabolic trick going to be used in space? Special tablets will deliver intestinal microbes to the astronauts’ digestive system, which will help the body work in the “winter hibernation” mode. This will make it possible to effectively combat the syndrome of astronaut muscle atrophy during weightlessness during long journeys. Now the inhabitants of the ISS reduce the degradation of muscle tissue through intense physical exercise. But, as we have already said, ships for deep space travel, unlike the ISS, are too small to fit a large amount of sports equipment on board.
This work became interested in the Canadian Space Agency, which allocated a grant to continue research. Matthew Regan himself joined the Agency last year as an animal physiologist in the Department of Biological Sciences.
However, researchers believe that this discovery can be used not only in space, but also on Earth. After all, 850 million people in the world today suffer from malnutrition. And drugs to optimize the gut microbiome can help them survive hunger, just as they help animals survive hibernation. However, Matthew Regan emphasizes that only the theoretical possibility of such biohacking (“hacking” the body and optimizing its work) is now open. There is a lot of research to be done before the mechanism, which is natural for hibernating animals, will work in humans.