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Want To Go To Mars? The Risks May Not Be Worth It, Says UNLV Prof

NASA
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Nearly 50 years after we went to the Moon, Mars is in our sights.

Tesla and SpaceX's Elon Musk says that's where he wants to go next, planning to send astronauts to the red planet in the coming years.

He's even said he wants to die on Mars.

But, new research from UNLV suggests … that could come sooner than Musk may like.

Frank Cucinotta is a professor at UNLV and co-author of a new study about the health effects of a trip to Mars.

Cucinotta explains that cosmic radiation that a space traveler would experience is very different than the kind encountered on earth. It is both stronger and has a different impact on a person's body.

When the body is exposed to that kind of radiation, the radiation changes a person's DNA. The DNA then works to repair itself but it makes mistakes, which are mutations that cause cancer.

Cucinotta said his study shows that low levels of cosmic radiation over time causes more damage to 'bystander cells' that are cells that are nearby cells that maybe have had direct exposure to radiation.

“When you go to Mars, every cell is going to get hit once but over three years. You really need to be at these lower doses to really understand what’s going to happen,” he said.

That exposure elevates the risk of death from 3 percent, which is NASA's current limit, to 20 percent. It is a risk that Cucinotta says is like "playing Russian roulette."

People on earth and those in earth's orbit like astronauts on the space station are protected from cosmic radiation by the earth's magnetosphere which works to shield us.

Creating something to shield spacecraft for a deep space trip to Mars would take at least 30 feet of some kind of material, which at this point is too heavy to get into space.

Cucinotta said he understands people want to go to Mars, but the radiation problem needs to be solved before anyone blasts off.

(Editor's note: This interview originally ran in October 2017)

Frank Cucinotta, professor, UNLV

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)