Beyond Earth

How Does Space Travel Pose A Risk of Cancer?

Jul 16 2021 By Minal Niraula  
American astronaut in space



American astronaut in space
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Space travel is a seeming reality rather than a distant dream. With billionaires racing to space now, it is only a matter of time while space tourism becomes a norm. But what if we told you there are serious health risks associated with space travel. And if you wanted to go to space, you might get cancer.

The risk of cancer for astronauts in space is a relevant topic. It has been studied and commented upon by many sources. Adverse effects on DNA from cosmic radiation are the main theory behind the effect of space travel on the human body. Especially cells in tissue near skin and eyes.

Space and The Risk of Cancer

A recent study found that “the lifetime risk of cancer due to exposure to cosmic radiation during one round trip to Mars is about 40%. Although this depends strongly on how much shielding is used. The risk increases with the mission length. And this is one of the significant drivers of the cost of human exploration.”

astronaut
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The study was conducted at the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences at University College London (UCL). And it was funded by Nasa’s Human Research Program. The analysis was published online in Space Weather. It indicates that a typical three-year Mars mission would expose astronauts to a dose of about 1.01 sievert. This is equivalent to a whole-body CT scan every five or six days. This would increase an astronaut’s risk of developing fatal cancer by 2%. It is compared with their remaining life expectancy if they did not travel.

The number of cancer cases in astronauts in space has been calculated. And it is estimated that there are about 20 – 40 cases a year. The number of deaths due to cancer is much higher because the radiation dose received by astronauts in space is too small to cause death.

Although most cancers are rare, the risk of melanoma-the deadliest form of skin cancer-is particularly high because of the high energy deposited in the skin and because external radiation levels on Mars will be much higher than at Earth during sunlight hours. Melanoma occurs mostly among older men.

What about going to Mars?

woman wearing space suit
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The researchers’ calculations suggest that if a Mars mission were to last six months, then the risk of dying from cancer would be 2.3 times higher than the risk of death during the mission. If a Mars mission was to last two years, the risk would be 1.4 times higher.

During a six month Mars mission, astronauts would be exposed to an average dose of about 0.46 sievert every five days, and an astronaut in this situation would have a 42% chance of developing cancer and about a 17% increase in their lifetime risk of dying from cancer compared with their remaining life expectancy if they did not travel to Mars.

Also read: Everyday Habits That Increase Your Cancer Risk

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