Long-term space flight may destroy red blood cells, making Elon Musk's proposal to inhabit Mars more challenging than anticipated.


According to recent studies, more than a third of astronauts become momentarily anemic during space travel due to the enormous loss of red blood cells, including that of Tim Peake. Since the symptoms only appear with gravity, this does not cause problems until they arrive.

A new study reveals that populating other planets, like those envisioned by entrepreneur Elon Musk, may be more complex than previously assumed, based on the discovery of "space anemia."

In addition, they suggested that it might deter those predisposed to heart illness, such as angina, from participating in the growing space tourism industry.

Five of the 13 astronauts investigated were clinically anemic when they returned to Earth after a six-month space trip, according to the researchers, because their systems destroyed 54 percent more blood cells in space than they would on Earth. Mr. Peake may or may not have been one of the five.


Artist’s concept of the Big Falcon Rocket a.k.a. Starship. Image courtesy: (Image credit: SpaceX Primal Space )
Artist’s concept of the Big Falcon Rocket a.k.a. Starship. Image courtesy:
(Image credit: SpaceX Primal Space )

After three to four months, they returned to their old selves, although tired and feeble.

Guy Trudel, a rehabilitation physician and researcher at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa, told me that "space anemia is identified upon arrival on a new planet and must be reversed."

"The new planet's gravity would have an impact on the recovery from space anemia." As far as populating other planets goes, this is something we may have ignored," he said.

According to Professor Trudel, the findings may hamper – or possibly forbid – some persons from doing the type of modest space missions that people like Sir Richard Branson have started to perform recently.

"Our data reveal that this rapid destruction of red blood cells was active from the very first measurements we collected in space – five days after launch." A simple journey or merely reaching microgravity may thus be sufficient to initiate the phenomenon."

"Because the accelerated red blood cell destruction subsides shortly after landing, there may be no long-term implications after a short trip." "However, space passengers with red blood cell abnormalities or anemia, as well as diseases that can be amplified by anemia – such as heart failure and angina – should be evaluated before departure and monitored during landing," he noted.


An artist’s illustration of SpaceX BFR spaceships on the surface of Mars. (Image credit: SpaceX)
An artist’s illustration of SpaceX BFR spaceships on the surface of Mars.
(Image credit: SpaceX)

Even if, as scientists believe, the body compensates for some of the shortfalls by producing more red blood cells, the findings cast doubt on longer space trips of a year or more, as it is unclear how long the body can function effectively at this higher rate of red blood cell destruction – even in the absence of gravity.

Related: Giant reservoir of 'hidden water' discovered on Mars

The good news is that these findings may pave the way for new anemia treatments to be developed here on Earth.

"If we can find out what is causing this anemia, we may be able to treat or avoid it, both for astronauts and people on Earth," Professor Trudel continued.

Previous studies suggested that space anemia was caused by astronauts' bodies reacting quickly to the fluids that migrated to their upper bodies upon arrival in space.

Every second, human on Earth create and destroy two million red blood cells. According to the research, astronauts lost 54% more red blood cells than they did on Earth throughout their six-month mission, or three million every second. There were no differences in the results for male and female astronauts.

Researchers showed that space-related anemia could be reversed three to four months after returning to Earth, with red blood cell levels progressively resuming to normal.

The study, published in Nature Medicine with funding from the Canadian Space Agency, was carried out.

Also Read: High-Energy Oxygen Ions Discovered in Jupiter’s Innermost Radiation Belts.



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