TECH

NASA Could Alter The DNA Of Astronauts Heading To Mars, Here's Why

There one big hurdle we still haven't overcome.

10/10/2017 12:05 BST | Updated 11/10/2017 08:45 BST

NASA’s journey to Mars is one that’s filled with hurdles to overcome, but by far and away the biggest of those is how to actually keep the astronauts alive.

You see any journey into deep space will expose astronauts to the high energy particles coming from the Sun. This radiation can drastically increase their risk of cancer or other diseases.

NASA NASA / Reuters

Back here on Earth and within our own orbit we are protected by our planet’s magnetosphere, an invisible forcefield that deflects these particles, allowing life to flourish.

Out in the darkness of space however, there’s no such protection, leading NASA to consider a whole range of drastic solutions.

Speaking to The Times, NASA’s chief technologist Dr Douglas Terrier confirmed that the organisation had not only looked at conventional drug-based therapies but also the far more controversial step of actually altering the DNA of the astronauts themselves.

This could include tweaking or modifying the DNA of the astronauts in order to turn up a particular genetic instruction. The hope would be that you could alter the body so that it’s able to create its own defences against harmful radiation.

Dr Terrier admits that these solutions do have a lot of ethical consequences, however that doesn’t mean NASA has ruled them out entirely.

At present, more conventional approaches include some form of armour plating that would cover the entire ship, somehow shielding the astronauts from the radiation. Other alternatives include special suits, or even creating an artificial magnetic field that would protect them just as Earth protects us.

That last one, it should be noted, is incredibly difficult to do so don’t expect it to be heading into reality anytime soon.

Dubai Media Office

Interestingly, while both NASA and SpaceX have spoken in depth about the technology that will physically send the astronauts to Mars, these other loopholes have yet to be fully addressed.

Radiation will be as much an issue once they get to Mars, so experiments like the Mars Scientific City in Dubai will be vital in helping us build protective homes that can allow colonists to live, and live healthy lives free of the fear of radiation poisoning.

Update: NASA has issued a full statement on the interview given in The Times that it hopes clarifies its position on genetic modification.

The statement says: 

“NASA is working on research and technology developments to minimize acute and long-term crew health risks related to deep space exploration, including missions to Mars. The agency has identified 30 areas of human spaceflight risks, including space radiation exposure, which will be controlled by a NASA standard to protect crew health and safety.

The agency is not working on (and has no plans to do so) research related to changing existing genetic sequence or introducing new genetic material to an astronaut’s DNA for flight as previously reported. NASA strictly follows regulations currently in place to protect genetic information and manipulation. Ongoing radiation research includes looking at pharmaceuticals and cellular mechanisms, which would repair damage to the chromosomes that might take place due to galactic cosmic radiation. Future research may examine the possibility of using medications to alter existing dormant or under-expressed genes (gene expression) to mitigate the effects of radiation.”