Thursday, November 8, 2012

Germs in Space

by Vanessa, This post originally at Dear World...Sincerely, Science

Who wants to go to Mars? As you know, it won’t exactly be an easy voyage to make. How do you plan for something like that? Something I found very interesting was the risk of disease outbreak on such a long space flight. 

Out of 106 space flights, and 742 crew members, 29 cases of infectious disease outbreaks were reported. According to research done at NASA, microgravity not only weakens the immune system, but makes some microorganisms more resistant to agents that may normally kill them. On top of this, when you cough, the germs float in the air for much longer since there is no gravity to pull them down. When you add in the cramped quarters of a space shuttle, you get the ideal environment for disease to spread. 

To right this, one’s first thought may be, ‘Why not bring more disinfectants on board?’. The problem with this is that many hospital disinfectants that would work perfectly for this conundrum can’t be used. This is because they can emit hazardous vapours which can’t be filtered out due to the limited power. What can be done instead?

Dr. Leonard Mermel, an infectious disease expert at Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital has a few ideas. One of them is to increase the already strict  safety measures to keep microbes from getting on board, as well as securing microbes that do make it on board. Another of his suggestions is to expand the pre-flight vaccinations to include Meningococcus and Pneumococcus, among other things, as well as supply even more antibiotics on board. To save on power, so more hospital disinfectants can be used on board, he also suggests adding in a HEPA air filtration system. 

While those suggestions seem to have solved the problem, there are still some fairly important questions that should be addressed before a trip to Mars is made. Is the infectious disease risk really higher in space? Although studies and research highly suggest that it is, it has not been directly measured. Also, there is the question of whether all of the food on board should be so severely irradiated. Some bacteria from food is needed, it would be unnatural to eat without it for the roughly two years they would be in space for. 

Mermel concluded by saying that if NASA planned to go to Mars in two years, he’s confident they’d make the journey without a bacterial tragedy. I very much agree with him, and wish the best of luck to the astronauts who will one day (hopefully soon) travel to Mars!

(To read the whole story, check out the link below! [Ed note: news release])

About this contributor: I'm a high school student with a huge interest in Science, especially Chemistry and Biology. I also enjoy reading, dance, and badminton.

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