While a long-term settlement on Mars could be an exciting endeavor, sustaining life there will be difficult — and that’s putting it lightly, a cognitive scientist tells Inverse.
A study published in the June edition of Futures reports that reproducing on the red planet could present numerous medical challenges. The team of researchers, based at the University of Information Technology and Management in Rzeszów, Poland, says the only way to successfully create a Mars settlement would be to genetically alter our bodies.
Since Mars has an extremely thin atmosphere — about 100 times thinner than Earth’s — cosmic radiation is a much larger concern on the red planet than it is here. Earth’s magnetic field protects us from solar wind and high-energy space particles that could cause us harm. No such shield exists on Mars, which could cause issues in fetal development.
“The biggest challenges for human reproductive biology are caused by [a] specific space environment including microgravity during the long journey to Mars, cosmic rays (the biggest during the journey but also high exposure to cosmic radiation just on Mars) and extremely high bone loss (caused mostly by microgravity),” the study’s lead author Konrad Szocik, a cognitive scientist, tells Inverse. “Radiation will be a big challenge for human reproduction, beginning from effective fertilization.”
Radiation and decreased gravity on Mars could indeed make human reproduction much more dangerous. On Earth, radiation exposure can be seriously harmful to fetuses and can impact brain development, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One could assume that the Martian environment could affect embryonic development and/or reproductive cells in a much more intense way.
“Radiation is known to be deleterious for adults and especially for reproductive cells, developing embryos and fetuses, and is already considered a major health hazard to astronauts,” the team writes.
Besides building an intricate, underground system of tunnels to protect us all from radiation, there doesn’t appear to be many options left for a long-term settlement on Mars. And while it might sound very sci-fi — as all of this does, really — the researchers suggest changing our bodies to be better suited for Mars.
“The method of CRISPR makes possible adaptive genetic engineering,” the team writes. “We should consider the idea of genetic human enhancement before and during that mission. Genetic engineering and deep-space isolation can result in speciation of Homo Sapiens. In such a scenario, new ethical challenges arise from the evolution of a new kind of human species who will possess a new nature and, consequently, possibly new moral duties and rights when compared with people living on Earth.”
That’s pretty heavy, especially considering we don’t (yet) have the technology to upgrade our bodies like iPhones. While this work isn’t a guide on how to build a Martian settlement, it does raise valid questions on how to keep one relatively healthy and sustainable.