In preparation for a future human mission to Mars, NASA has released 50 objectives that need to be met in order for us to reach the red planet, and is looking for feedback on them.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Space Agency announced the 20 semi-finalists in a Deep Space Health Care Challenge to develop new technologies for astronaut health during a Mars mission that could also be applied to remote locations on Earth.
Breaking down the logistics to get to Mars
To plan for such a journey, they have come up with a list of necessary objectives including systems for getting people and equipment to the surface of Mars, planning habitats in which Martian voyagers will live, and things like power systems to provide electricity on the surface . There are vehicles, robotic systems and science objectives to prioritize.
To brainstorm all this, they are looking for input from people within NASA, stakeholders in industry and academia, and the public.
The idea for many of these technologies is to test them on the moon then adapt them to function on Mars. But in addition to the rockets, habitats and rovers needed for Mars exploration, one of the biggest issues will be astronaut health.
Space travel is hard on the human body as astronauts who have lived on the International Space Station have found out.
Health considerations of space travel
Canadian astronauts Robert Thirsk, Chris Hadfield and David St. Jaques each spent up to half a year on the space station, and had to deal with disorientation, bone loss, vision problems and muscle atrophy. That’s after only six months in microgravity.
Even a short visit to Mars and back will take approximately three times as long as our Canadian astronauts spent on those long-duration space station missions. A full Mars mission will take at least 500 days — most of that in zero gravity and the rest in the low gravity of Mars, which is about one third of that on Earth. The physical and mental challenges will be huge, and if there is a medical emergency, help is a long, long way away.
This is, in many ways, similar to the problems faced by remote communities in Canada where health care institutions and infrastructure are thin on the ground. In fact, research on remote medicine could have applications on the ground in Canada, and in space.
Challenge to support healthy space travel
To meet the need for remote health care — with an eye on Mars — the Canadian Space Agency, along with supporting partners at Indigenous Services Canada and the government-supported innovation incubator, the 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 novel diagnostic and detection solutions that can support frontline health workers in detecting or diagnosing medical conditions in remote communities now, and eventually crews on long-duration space missions.”
These technologies can address any of a long list of health concerns, from chronic problems like cardiovascular and mental health conditions to traumatic injuries. Proposals from the semi-finalists include wearable devices that can monitor vital signs and diseases, an artificial intelligence-enabled virtual medical assistant, robots that can do cancer screening, and ultralight “head-sized” MRI machines.
The semi-finalists, from industry and academia, must provide proof-of-concept in 10 months, when five finalists will be awarded $350,000 to develop a working prototype. In the fall of 2023, their prototypes will be evaluated and a grand prize winner will be announced in the winter of 2024.
A common justification for space flight is how technology developed for astronauts can be spun off to benefit people on Earth. This competition is a rare case where those on the ground may reap the benefits first.