Smart talk plans

As NASA plans for Mars, Canada works to keep Mars travelers healthy

In preparation for a future human mission to Mars, NASA released 50 goals that need to be met for us to reach the Red Planet, and seek feedback on them.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Space Agency announced the 20 semi-finalists in a Deep Space Healthcare Challenge develop new technologies for the health of astronauts on a mission to Mars that could also be applied to remote locations on Earth.

While NASA’s immediate priority for human space exploration is to develop the Artemis program to return humans to the moon, the agency’s long-term goal is to land on March.

Breaking down the logistics of getting to Mars

To plan such a trip, they came up with a list of necessary objectives, including systems to get people and equipment to the surface of Mars, planning the habitats in which Martian travelers will live, and things like systems electric to supply electricity to the surface. . There are vehicles, robotic systems and science goals to prioritize.

Artist’s concept of Artemis astronauts on the moon. (NASA)

To reflect on all this, they are looking for entry people within NASA, stakeholders from industry and academia, and the public.

The idea for many of these technologies is to test them on the Moon and then adapt them to work on Mars. But in addition to the rockets, habitats and rovers needed to explore Mars, one of the biggest issues will be the health of astronauts.

Space travel is hard on the human body as astronauts who lived on the International Space Station have discovered.

Space Travel Health Considerations

Canadian astronauts Robert Thirsk, Chris Hadfield and David St. Jaques each spent up to six months on the space station and faced disorientation, bone loss, vision problems and muscle atrophy. This is after only six months in microgravity.

Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Expedition 35 Commander Chris Hadfield, left, and his crew members sit in chairs outside the Soyuz capsule minutes after it landed in a remote area of Kazakhstan on May 14, 2013. (Carla Cioffi/NASA)

Even a short visit to Mars and back will take about three times as long as our Canadian astronauts spent on those long-duration missions to the space station. A full mission to Mars will take at least 500 days – most of it in weightlessness and the rest in Mars’ low gravity, about a third of that on Earth. The physical and mental challenges will be enormous, and if there is a medical emergency, help is far, far away.

This resembles, in many ways, the issues facing remote communities in Canada, where health care facilities and infrastructure are scarce on the ground. In fact, remote medicine research could have applications on the ground in Canada and in space.

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques tested the Bio-Monitor smart shirt system to measure and record his heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, physical activity and blood oxygen levels on board from the International Space Station in 2019. (Canadian Space Agency/NASA)

Challenge to support healthy space travel

To address the need for remote health care – with an eye on Mars – the Canadian Space Agency, in collaboration with supporting partners from Indigenous Services Canada and the government-supported innovation incubator, CAN Health Network, created a competition to develop or adapt technology for remote medicine, with a grand prize worth $500,000.

According to their website, the challenge is “…to develop new diagnostic and sensing solutions that can help frontline health workers detect or diagnose medical conditions in remote communities now, and eventually aircrews.” during long-duration space missions.

These technologies can treat any of a long list of health conditions, from chronic conditions like cardiovascular and mental health issues to traumatic injuries. The semi-finalists’ proposals include wearables capable of monitoring vital signs and illnesses, an AI-enabled virtual medical assistant, robots capable of cancer screening and ultra-light MRI machines “from the size of a head”.

The semi-finalists, drawn from industry and academia, must deliver a proof of concept in 10 months, when five finalists will receive $350,000 to develop a working prototype. In fall 2023, their prototypes will be evaluated and a grand prize winner will be announced in winter 2024.

A common justification for spaceflight is how technology developed for astronauts can be exploited to benefit the people of Earth. This competition is a rare case where those on the ground can reap the benefits first.