In recent years, the development of space-faring robots, designed to replace many would-be astronauts, has prompted some to call for an aggressive return to manned space missions in order to maintain the vitality and wonder of space exploration. However, a new study indicates that sending robots out into space instead of humans might actually be the best way forward, after all.
According to a new study published in the PLOS One journal, galactic cosmic radiation can eventually lead to cognitive impairment. In the past, NASA has studied the potential effects of space travel on humans as it relates to cancer and other physical maladies, but this new study indicates that constant exposure to various forms of low-level radiation in space could result in serious neurodegeneration.
The lead author of the paper, professor M. Kerry O'Banion, a staffer at the University of Rochester Medical Center's Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, said, "this study shows for the first time that exposure to radiation levels equivalent to a mission to Mars could produce cognitive problems and speed up changes in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer's disease."
The study focused on one particular type of radiation known as high-mass, high-charged (HZE) particles. According to the researchers, this form of radiation presents a significant challenge in terms of protecting astronauts from its effects. And while NASA continues to work on future manned missions, this new study could ultimately impact the long-term future of how human space missions are developed.
Although no one has said that human space travel is suddenly too dangerous to consider, O'Banion warns, "Galactic cosmic radiation poses a significant threat to future astronauts."