The space brain problem: will astronauts remember their journey to Mars?

A new study by scientists at the University of California, Irvine has raised concerns about a phenomenon called “space brain” – the fact that astronauts travelling to Mars could risk chronic dementia after being exposed to galactic cosmic rays.

Professor of radiation oncology Charles Limoli and his colleagues have found that exposure to highly energetic charged particles, much like those found in galactic cosmic rays, causes significant long-term brain damage in rodents. The exposure resulted in cognitive impairments, as well as dementia.

The study has been published today in Nature’s Scientific Reports, and follows another study last year that showed shorter-term brain effects from exposure to galactic cosmic rays.

“This is not positive news for astronauts deployed on a two-to-three-year round trip to Mars,” Limoli said.

“The space environment poses unique hazards to astronauts. Exposure to these particles can lead to a range of potential central nervous system complications that can occur during and persist long after actual space travel – such as various performance decrements, memory deficits, anxiety, depression and impaired decision-making.

“Many of these adverse consequences to cognition may continue and progress throughout life.”

Image courtesy of NASA. Above: Image courtesy of NASA/Paul DiMare

The study, which was carried out at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory in New York, subjected rodents to charged particle irradiation. The rats were then sent to Limoli’s laboratory for analysis.

After six months of exposure, the scientists found significant levels of brain inflammation and damage to neurons. The brain’s neural network was impaired through the reduction of dendrites –short branched extensions of nerve cells, along which impulses received from other cells at synapses are transmitted to the cell body – and spines on those neurons, disrupting the transmission of signals among brain cells.

The radiation also affected “fear extinction” – a process in which the brain supresses prior unpleasant or stressful associations.

“Deficits in fear extinction could make you prone to anxiety, which could become problematic over the course of a three-year trip to and from Mars,” Limoli warned.

Images courtesy ofNASA. Featured image courtesy of NASA/Paul DiMare

Images courtesy of NASA. Featured image courtesy of NASA/Paul DiMare

Similar types of more severe cognitive dysfunction, which often results in poor performance on behavioural tasks designed to test learning and memory, are common in brain cancer patients who have received high-dose radiation treatments.

Although dementia-like deficits in astronauts would take months to appear, the time required for a mission to Mars is sufficient for these impairments to develop.

The study is part of NASA’s Human Research Program, which undertakes work to predict, assess and solve the problems that humans encounter in space. Investigating how space radiation affects astronauts is critical to future space exploration, and NASA must consider the risks as it plans for missions to Mars.

Partial solutions to the problem are being explored, such as designing spacecraft to include areas of increased shielding.

“But, realistically, the highly energetic charged particles will traverse the spacecraft regardless, “and there is really no escaping them,” Limoli warned.

Preventive treatments, however, could be more effective. The UCI team is currently working on pharmacological strategies involving compounds that scavenge free radicals and protect neurotransmission.

DJI’s First Drone Arena in Tokyo to Open This Saturday

Consumer drone giant DJI will open its first Japanese drone arena in the city of Tokyo this Saturday, providing a space for both hardened professionals and curious newcomers to hone their flying skills.

The arena, which covers an area of 535 square metres, will not only include a large flying area complete with obstacles, but also offer a store where visitors can purchase the latest DJI drones and a technical support area where drone owners can get help with quadcopter issues.

The hope is that the arena will allow those who are curious about the technology but currently lack the space to try it out to get involved.

“As interest around our aerial technology continues to grow, the DJI Arena concept is a new way for us to engage not just hobbyists but also those considering this technology for their work or just for the thrill of flying,” said Moon Tae-Hyun, DJI’s director of brand management and operations.

“Having the opportunity to get behind the remote controller and trying out the technology first hand can enrich the customer experience. When people understand how it works or how easy it is to fly, they will discover what this technology can do for them and see a whole new world of possibilities.”

Images courtesy of DJI

In addition to its general sessions, which will allow members of the public to drop by and try their hand at flying drones, the arena will also offer private hire, including corporate events. For some companies, then, drone flying could become the new golf.

There will also be regular events, allowing pros to compete against one another, and drone training, in the form of DJI’s New Pilot Experience Program, for newcomers.

The arena has been launched in partnership with Japan Circuit, a developer of connected technologies, including drones.

“We are extremely excited to partner with DJI to launch the first DJI Arena in Japan,” said Tetsuhiro Sakai, CEO of Japan Circuit.

“Whether you are a skilled drone pilot or someone looking for their first drone, we welcome everyone to come and learn, experience it for themselves, and have fun. The new DJI Arena will not only serve as a gathering place for drone enthusiasts but also help us reach new customers and anyone interested in learning about this incredible technology.”

The arena is the second of its kind to be launched by DJI, with the first located in Yongin, South Korea, and detailed in the video above. .

Having opened in 2016, the area has attracted visitors from around the world, demonstrating serious demand for this type of entertainment space.

If the Tokyo launch goes well, it’s likely DJI will look at rolling out its arena concept to other cities, perhaps even bringing the model to the US and Europe.

For now, however, those who are interested can book time at the Tokyo arena here.

Commercial Human Spaceflight Advances Prompt Calls for Space Safety Institute

Commercial human spaceflight has been a long-held dream, but now it is finally poised to become a reality. Companies including Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are inching ever closer to taking private citizens into space, and there are serious plans for spaceports in several parts of the world, including Hawaii, the US, and Scotland, the UK.

But while the industry is advancing, the legal side of this fledgling commercial space industry remains underdeveloped, leading to calls for the development of an organisation to establish a framework for the safe operation of spaceports for human commercial spaceflights.

Writing in the journal New Space, Mclee Kerolle, from the United States International Institute of Space Law in Paris, France, has proposed the establishment of a Space Safety Institute recognised by the US congress and the United Nations.

This institute would “develop, enforce and adopt standards of excellence”, allowing the industry to develop while protecting it from liability and insurance risks.

“Currently, no international regulatory body exists to regulate the operation of spaceports,” he wrote. “This is unfortunate because while the advent of commercial human spaceflight industry is imminent, a majority of the focus from the legal community will be on regulating spaceflights and space access vehicles.

“However, the regulation of spaceports should be viewed in the same light as the rest of the commercial human spaceflight industry.”

The article focuses particularly on the establishment of a spaceport at the Kona International Airport in Keahole, Hawaii. At present, the spaceport’s development is subject to regulation by the Federal Aviation Authority, however there are aspects to spaceport development that do not apply to conventional aviation operations.

A spacesuit design for commercial flights developed by SpaceX. Featured image: SpaceX’s proposed spaceport for its conceptual interplanetary transport system. All images courtesy of SpaceX

The institute would be designed to first and foremost ensure safety within the industry, so it would be important, according to Kerolle, to ensure it was made up of individuals with expertise in the field, rather than bureaucrats.

“To make sure that this flexibility is inherent in a Space Safety Institute, the organization should be composed of individuals within the industry as opposed to government officials who are not familiar with the commercial human spaceflight industry,” he wrote.

“As a result, this should protect the commercial human spaceflight industry to some liability exposure, as well as promote growth in the industry to ensure the industry’s survival.”