Sep 29, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: Radiation-proofing astronauts to live in space for years

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Researchers are working to find new ways to protect the human body from radiation in space in order to allow people to live far from Earth for years at a time, I write with my colleague Bryan Walsh.

Why it matters: Big thinkers like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos believe that one day people will be living and working in space, on the Moon and even on Mars for years at a time, but humans aren’t made to stand up for long to the extreme radiation environment they’ll face off Earth.

  • S0me scientists are hoping to find ways to alter human genetics to make the body more resistant to radiation.

What's happening: While living in space for years at a time is still a long way off, even shorter-duration missions to relatively nearby targets could expose astronauts to doses of radiation that may up their odds to develop cancer later in life.

  • A study in the journal Science Advances last week found astronauts on the Moon would receive more than 200 times as much radiation per hour than people on Earth, meaning they will likely need specialized shielding designed to protect them from those rays for long-term missions.

Between the lines: It's not clear exactly how bad the effects of radiation exposure are to people living in space.

  • Some studies in mice suggest exposure to galactic cosmic rays over a long period of time could cause adverse cognitive effects.
  • While radiation from solar particles is relatively easy to block with shielding during solar storms, it's more complicated to block cosmic rays with known techniques that would be practical for spaceflight.

And scientists are still trying to parse different models for how radiation could cause cancer in astronauts and how high their risks of developing it could be.

  • One model is more straightforward, according to Francis Cucinotta, a radiation researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with radiation causing DNA damage that would lead to cancer.
  • Another model, however, says that radiation could cause other effects to biochemistry, tissue regulation and how cells interact, upping the risks of developing cancer, Cucinotta said.
  • If that second model is correct, it could mean the cancer risks to astronauts is two to three times higher than those in Model A, Cucinotta added.

What's next: Weill Cornell Medicine geneticist Chris Mason — who was involved with NASA research on the biological effects of astronaut Scott Kelly's 340 days in space — has written about a 500-year plan to reengineer human genetics to make long-term space travel and even settlement on other worlds possible.

Details: Modifying the DNA of future astronauts through gene therapies or gene editing to make them more resistant to radiation and other threats from long-term space travel is an ambitious strategy.

  • In 2016, geneticist George Church identified more than 40 genes that could be targeted for long-term spaceflight.
  • Another option may involve combining the DNA of other, radiation-hardened species — like microscopic tardigrades — with humans.
  • A group at Duke University is trying to tease out the secrets behind the tardigrade's resistance and possibly translate it to other organisms.

Yes, but: Scientists need to have a much better idea of exactly what targeted genes do before they could safely and effectively modify DNA in astronauts.

The bottom line: If future humans do eventually make space their home, chances are they'll need protection that doesn't yet exist.

Subscribe to Bryan Walsh's Future newsletter here.

2. A brand new space toilet

The new space toilet being demonstrated on Earth. Photo: NASA

NASA is sending a new and much-improved toilet up to the International Space Station this week.

Why it matters: The new toilet is designed to be easier to use for female astronauts while in orbit.

How it works: The new $23 million toilet, called the Universal Waste Management System, incorporates feedback from astronauts that should make it more pleasant for everyone to do their business in space.

  • The current toilets on the space station make use of a tube and funnel with a seat, but the toilet’s design makes it hard to use both simultaneously.
  • The team behind the new toilet incorporated the tube so that it can be used with the seat, making it easier for female astronauts to use.
  • The UWMS is also easier to maintain than the current toilets in orbit, meaning astronauts will need to spend less time cleaning than they do currently.

What's next: NASA hopes to eventually use the toilet on missions to deep space destinations like the Moon and Mars.

  • The space agency is planning to test out the toilet on the space station for about three years to get all the kinks worked out before using it on farther afield trips.
  • "When the astronauts have to go, we want to allow them to boldly go," Jim Fuller, who helped develop the new toilet said during a press briefing last week.
  • The toilet is expected to launch to the station Thursday aboard a Cygnus spacecraft from Virginia. Watch it live here.
3. Salt in another solar system

IRAS 16547-4247, a binary star system. Photo: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Tanaka et al.

A pair of newborn stars are enveloped in water vapor and sodium chloride — otherwise known as table salt — according to new data from the ALMA telescope in Chile.

Why it matters: Scientists are always looking to piece together new details of how star systems form, and the detection of salt in this binary star system could help researchers figure out how baby stars grow.

State of play: The binary system, called IRAS 16547-4247, is about 9,500 light-years from Earth, and the stars' combined mass is about 25 times the Sun's.

  • This marks the second time scientists have seen table salt in the soup around huge young stars.
  • "The first example was around Orion KL Source I, but that is such a peculiar source that we were not sure whether salt is suitable to see gas disks around massive stars. Our results confirmed that salt is actually a good marker," Kei Tanaka, who led the team that found the table salt signal, said in a statement.

The big picture: The pair of stars, which appear to orbit in two different directions, may have actually formed separately and then met up later in life.

  • Most huge stars that scientists have seen in the universe have companions, so learning more about the specifics of how these types of systems form could inform their understanding of the origins of these stars.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to study these systems with water vapor and table salt to possibly learn more about how our solar system — which is also rich in water vapor and sodium chloride — formed in its early days.
4. What to watch: "Challenger the Final Flight"

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger before flight. Photo: NASA

A new documentary series on Netflix explores the tragedy of the Challenger accident in a way that should resonate with anyone paying attention to our current moment in U.S. spaceflight.

Why it matters: Even those who have read the full Challenger investigation report will get something from hearing the voices of those who were most closely involved with deciding to press ahead with the launch on that cold Florida morning.

My thought bubble: Watching the documentary, I thought about what's at stake as SpaceX and eventually Boeing launch people to orbit for NASA.

  • While NASA's culture has changed since the shuttle era, the agency still needs to keep its tragic mistakes of the past top of mind.
  • Political and schedule pressures can get in the way of safe launches, and now NASA and SpaceX will need to do all they can to guard against that reality to keep astronauts safe.
  • The same will also be true as NASA races to launch a crewed mission to the Moon by 2024.

How to watch: The entire four-part documentary is available on Netflix now. Watch it here.

5. Out of this world reading list

Starlink satellites above Earth ready for deployment. Photo: SpaceX

Elon Musk says he likely will take Starlink satellite internet service public (Michael Sheetz, CNBC)

"Extreme" exoplanet found orbiting hot blue star (Ashley Strickland, CNN)

NASA still searching for source of ISS air leak (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

NASA astronaut plans to cast her ballot from space station (Alex Sanz, AP)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: Sediment into the sea

Photo: NASA/Chris Cassidy

Watching bodies of water fly by underneath the huge windows of the International Space Station is probably one of the more surreal and beautiful experiences a crewmember can have.

  • NASA's Chris Cassidy took this photo of sediment running from the Papaloapan River near Alvarado into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Scientists use photos taken by astronauts in space to track weather and other phenomena on Earth.
  • In 2012, for example, researchers used photos taken on board the station to observe a type of lightning called "red sprites," which are difficult to study from the ground.
Miriam Kramer

Big thanks to Alison Snyder and Sheryl Miller for editing this week's edition and to Bryan for writing with me. If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. ☢️