Twin experiments in space

Twin experiments in space

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By Daniel Dunaief

In the course of a month, two events have occurred that, perhaps some time in the next several decades, may help people make that incredibly long journey to Mars.

First, Scott Kelly went up in space. OK, so, that’s not such a shocker. Kelly is an astronaut and that’s what astronauts do. What makes Kelly’s trip different, however, is that he plans to spend an entire year at the International Space Station, setting an American record for the longest time away from Earth.

Kelly’s identical twin Mark, a retired astronaut and husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, will of course spend that same year on Earth. Having identical twins in two places for the same period of time presents an incredible opportunity. Mark is in reality the “control” in the experiment, giving NASA, doctors and anyone else interested in the effects of prolonged periods of time in space an opportunity to see how the two brothers react differently to different environments. Identical twins present that rare opportunity to rule out the nature part of the nature-nurture dynamic.

Some day, the information NASA records from the Kelly twins will help us understand the kinds of preparations necessary to safeguard any would-be space traveler from the harmful effects of higher radiation and no gravity for a journey to Mars that by current technology would take some 250 days. After all, our genes have evolved over thousands of years to life on Earth. Just because we’ve figured out to send ourselves deep into space doesn’t mean we can suddenly fine-tune the gift of our biological systems the way we might raise a heat shield on a space module.

A month after Scott Kelly returned to the ISS, where he’d spent considerable time on previous missions, a team of scientists, led by Javier Martin-Torres, a Spanish researcher who is a professor in Sweden and used to work in the United States at NASA, published a study based on a year’s worth of meteorological data from the Red Planet.

As it turns out, Martin-Torres and his team have determined it is highly likely Mars has liquid water — today. It’s not enough water to open a super-exclusive pool club or to plant a couple of dozen grape trees to cultivate a deep-space vineyard for the elite and refined palates of the world’s wealthiest wine lovers.

The scientists recorded readings through the Mars rover Curiosity of water that likely evaporates during the Martian day and forms again during the cold night as perchlorate salts melt any frozen water vapor.

This study, Martin-Torres suggested, may have implications for planetary protection policies. The Committee on Space Research may look carefully at places where spacecraft couldn’t land on Mars out of concern that any vehicle might contaminate the planet by introducing new organisms.

The presence of water speaks to us because it makes up more than 60 percent of our own bodies. Water also is a key element to life on our blue planet, raising the question about whether life, even in the form of small microbes, could use it to survive.

This Martian water, however, isn’t exactly a refreshing stream. It’s probably up to three-and-a-half times as salty as the water in the Dead Sea, Martin-Torres said.

The saltiness, radiation and numerous other factors make that water inhospitable to life, even on a microbial scale.

“The conditions are terrible,” admitted Martin-Torres. Still, “it’s better to have water than not to have it.” Besides, while it’s likely that any life on Mars would struggle to survive in that water, “nature always surprises us.”