The US space agency hopes to understand the potential health effects of prolonged spaceflight.

How will the 3-year Mars mission affect humans NASA wants to find out File photo: Facebook/NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover
news Science Wednesday, December 20, 2017 - 13:01

As a round-trip mission to Mars could last three years, NASA is calling for more research to understand how long-term experiences in space could affect the human body.

Typical missions to the International Space Station (ISS) last just six months.

"To draw any conclusions about the cumulative effects of exposure to space, we need to observe more astronauts spending larger amounts of time in the space environment," said John Charles of the Human Research Programme at NASA's Johnson Space Center. 

Combined with ongoing NASA studies, the new research could enable safer and more effective travel to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.

The US space agency hopes that such research will help it understand, prevent, diagnose, treat, mitigate and cure the potential health effects of prolonged spaceflight. 

"Scientists can use the information to predict physical and behavioural health trends," Charles said. 

Proposals are due by January 4, 2018, and NASA expects in late summer 2018 to select 15 to 18 proposals for grants with a maximum duration of seven years.

NASA said scientists submitting proposals should consider a robust programme that could include as many as 30 astronauts -- 10 to conduct shorter missions of up to two months, 10 as part of standard six-month missions, and 10 for one-year missions in space. 

With information gained from the selected studies, NASA aims to address five hazards of human space travel - space radiation, isolation and confinement, distance from Earth, gravity fields (or lack thereof), and hostile/closed environments that pose great risks to the human mind and body in space. 

"When the day comes for humans to launch on a journey to Mars, humanity will take another giant leap. The knowledge gained from this research could give NASA a running start," the US space agency said.

Bringing samples back

NASA has revealed how it plans to bring back Martian samples to Earth for the first time with the help of its next rover mission to the Red Planet, Mars 2020.

After landing on Mars, a drill will capture rock cores, while a caching system with a miniature robotic arm will seal up these samples. Then, they will be deposited on the Martian surface for possible pickup by a future mission, NASA said. 

"Whether life ever existed beyond Earth is one of the grand questions humans seek to answer. What we learn from the samples collected during this mission has the potential to address whether we're alone in the universe," said Ken Farley of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Mars 2020 relies heavily on the system designs and spare hardware previously created for Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012.

Despite its similarities to Mars Science Laboratory, the new mission has very different goals - it will seek signs of ancient life by studying the terrain that is now inhospitable, but once held flowing rivers and lakes, more than 3.5 billion years ago.

The mission is set to launch in July/August 2020.

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