Settling Mars: To live where no one has lived before

As commercial space travel becomes more feasible, and settling Mars is no longer the stuff of pure fantasy, UCalgary researchers and instructors look for solutions to some of the challenges of living in space.

Mike MacKinnon
August 2017


For hundreds of years, people have looked to the skies and tried to imagine what – or who – could be found on that red, flickering orb millions of kilometres away. Now, with unmanned spacecraft routinely sent to Mars to explore the planet, we know more than ever before about what to expect when we get there. And with renewed public interest in space travel, and space agencies and private space organizations advancing technology by leaps and bounds, the first human voyage to Mars is within our reach.

Though estimates of when such a mission might take place range from the year 2020 to the end of the century, settling Mars is a serious discussion. But there are still countless challenges to overcome and problems to solve before humans ever set foot on the Red Planet, let alone survive or thrive there.

"We will be on Mars 20 years from now," says Dr. Robert Thirsk, chancellor of the University of Calgary and alumni of the Schulich School of Engineering, who was a member of Canada's first astronaut class. "It sounds like science fiction, but the International Space Station program, made up of five space agencies, is already meeting to decide what the next step will be. Everyone agrees Mars is the ultimate destination. We're not quite ready to go there now. There are many technological, financial and leadership obstacles to overcome."

In 2009, Thirsk spent 188 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as part of Expedition 20/21. This remains the longest time spent in space by a Canadian, and Thirsk experienced many of the difficulties that astronauts would face on a trip to Mars.

"A big medical issue is ionizing radiation," says Thirsk. "You're exposed to radiation during spaceflight – and I was exposed to higher fluxes of radiation. Radiation causes changes in our DNA and the internal matrices of our cells, and that could be permanent damage. We need to find a way to not only measure the radiation environment in space, but to provide better shielding for astronauts."

It's long been known that astronauts lose muscle mass and bone density in microgravity, or a weightless environment, as their bodies don't have to work as hard as they do in a higher-gravity environment, like on Earth. While most of these changes are reversible, what's not known is if those changes eventually become permanent, or how to prevent them from happening in the first place.

"Another show-stopper is some of the musculoskeletal changes that take place in your body," Thirsk says. "Muscles waste away, they atrophy, they lose strength and bones demineralize. We know that the effects of weightlessness, or microgravity, are more or less reversible after a six-month voyage, such as on the International Space Station, but the question is, when you stay in space for a year, or two-and-a-half years, when we're talking about going to Mars, are they reversible then?"

Does space change the building blocks of bones?

Steven Boyd, PhD, a professor and director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health in UCalgary's Cumming School of Medicine, is trying to find out what exactly happens to astronauts' bones in a microgravity environment, and whether or not bones regain their strength and health when they return to Earth.

Boyd and his team use a computer tomography (CT) scanner to look at the connective tissue inside bones, called trabeculae, that makes up the so-called microarchitecture of bones, acting as rods or struts and giving bone its strength.

"We take astronauts who are coming through the Johnston Space Center in Houston," says Boyd. "We scan them just prior to going onto the International Space Station, and we scan them again when they return. What we're seeing, of course, and this has been known for a while, is that they're losing bone. And once they're back in gravity, that bone recovers its density.

"But we know that when you lose bone, you must be changing the architecture. The trabeculae are disconnecting. And when you regain bone mass, it builds on top of what's left of the structure. So from a density point of view, it looks like you have density that's very similar to what you had when you left. But from a structure point of view, it may be permanently altered. That's what we're testing, to see if there's permanent alteration in the bone structure as a result of space travel and if so, does that structure have an effect on bone strength."

In addition to studying a key challenge that stands in the way of human travel to Mars, Boyd says his research can help patients on Earth. "Six months on the International Space Station is equivalent to about 10 years of bone loss through aging," says Boyd. "And when someone has osteoporosis on Earth, you can't just flip a switch and reverse the process. With an astronaut you can. You can watch the bone return to normal, which is highly relevant as we develop drug and exercise treatments that build bone."


Microgravity has effects on our bodies and brains.
Microgravity has effects on our bodies and brains.

This is your brain on microgravity

Microgravity also has an effect on the brain and how it processes vestibular information, which is the sensory input about your surroundings that your body picks up and sends to your brain. Vestibular information and other inputs help your brain make sense of where you are, what's around you, and where you're going.

Giuseppe Iaria, PhD, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in the Department of Psychology in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts, and a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, is studying astronauts to learn how microgravity changes the way the brain processes vestibular information. Iaria and his NeuroLab team specialize in studying how people orient themselves and find their way around, which is a highly complex set of skills that gets lost in microgravity.

"When you're in microgravity, you float around," says Iaria. "But the brain is missing important information provided by the gravitational forces that keep us on the ground. Our project is looking at what happens to orientation skills when this information is missing, and what are the effects of the lack of processing this information on the brain." Iaria says the symptoms can range from intense motion sickness to an inability to walk or to tell up from down.

Iaria, whose project is funded by the Canadian Space Agency, plans to test astronauts with a variety of methods to assess their spatial orientation and wayfinding skills before and after trips to the ISS. Iaria says studying astronauts returning to Earth provides a unique opportunity to understand how the brain works and processes information. "What is really important in the brain is how different regions co-operate to support behaviour," Iaria says. "That's how the brain is responsible for our behaviours in general. If you orient and navigate, when you move around, you have your motor skills involved, your attention, your perception, your memory, you have mental imagery, so a lot of things are going on. We're trying to understand how different regions of the brain cooperate in order to support this important behaviour."

Can sea monkeys take us to Mars?

Iaria says his study will help to develop treatment and training programs for astronauts and for people on Earth. "What we are expecting is that after exposure to microgravity for six months, the extended networks in the brain that are important for spatial orientation are not as integrated as they were before," he says. "If we can quantify what the effects are, we will be able to develop some training programs for astronauts. And we can learn more about how to help people who have spatial orientation problems in developing those skills, and we may be able to develop some training programs for them as well."

Iaria says a better understanding of how the brain works will also lead to healthier brains as we age. "Aging has a major impact," he says. "We are living longer and longer but the brain is still declining. How can we change the dynamics in the brain so that we'll be able to postpone that kind of decline? If we can understand how the brain works through understanding spatial orientation, that's a big advantage for society in general. There's really so much we can learn in terms of basic science from this project."

As for travel to Mars, Iaria says that while there are larger challenges to tackle first, spatial orientation is an important factor: "It's kind of ironic to think that we would lose our ability to find our way around while we discover and settle a new planet, and that we may have to learn a new way of moving around and navigating when we get there."


Brine shrimp, or sea monkeys, are among the hardiest species on Earth.
Brine shrimp, or sea monkeys, are among the hardiest species on Earth.

Natural solutions

While Boyd and Iaria study the effect of microgravity on the body, Marjan Eggermont gets her engineering students thinking about ways that nature can solve some of the challenges in getting to Mars. Eggermont, a senior instructor in UCalgary's Schulich School of Engineering, teaches biomimicry, a form of design that takes inspiration from natural systems and processes to overcome complex challenges.

"What can we learn from nature's functionality, nature's chemistry?" Eggermont says. "Solutions that are already out there, that are proven because they're billions of years old. You can definitely find a lot of new paradigms on how to do things in nature."

Eggermont cites "extremophiles," creatures that adapt to live in some of Earth's most hostile environments, as examples of natural adaptations that could be useful on trips to Mars. "Brine shrimp, or sea monkeys," she says. "Tardigrades, or water bears. These organisms can go dormant for years, in cryptobiosis, protected from UV rays and extreme elements, and you add water and they come back to life. What can we learn from that?"

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Eggermont sees potential in adapting the abilities of these creatures to protect themselves from radiation and other extreme elements to help in transport and storage of things like vaccines and food, which would save energy and fuel on the voyage. "Things that would normally have to be transported in a freezer could now be transported at room temperature," she says.

Eggermont, who started an open-source biomimicry journal with colleagues, called ZQ, was invited to speak on the subject at the first National Biomimicry Summit and Education Forum for Aerospace. That appearance led to a membership in VINE, the Virtual Interchange for Nature-inspired Exploration, a multidisciplinary team established by NASA's Glenn Research Center.

VINE members meet regularly online in clusters to discuss the latest in biomimicry research, share knowledge and tackle some of NASA's biggest design challenges. Eggermont is a member of two clusters, Human Persistence in Space and Education and Science Communication, and she acts as something of a conduit between NASA and students. In 2016, Eggermont asked more than 800 engineering students to explore design related to several focus areas of NASA, including "Getting there," Living on Mars," "Food for astronauts," Radiation," and so on. The results of the project were published in June in a paper by Eggermont, showcasing several examples of designs by students that addressed NASA challenges.  


Studying space can teach us much about our own planet.
Studying space can teach us much about our own planet.

Learning about Earth from space

Another benefit of studying extreme environments and the creatures that live in them, says Eggermont, is that what we learn from them may be applicable here sooner than we think. She recalls a student who asked why they should be considering design for Mars settlements when there are so many problems to solve here on Earth.

"It's a fair comment," says Eggermont. "But I always think if we imagine the most extreme situation, that we come up with solutions that are very applicable here. At the rate we're going with the planet, we may need solutions for extreme environments very soon, right? But we find it hard to imagine an extreme environment on this planet right now, so let's look at an extreme environment somewhere else. And by exploring that, I think we find solutions for this place sooner than if we don't."

It's a view echoed by Thirsk, as he recalls looking down at Earth from the ISS. "Our planet is incredibly beautiful," Thirsk says. "The beauty of the planet was the first thing that I experienced for the first days and weeks that I was up there. But after I was up there for months, my eyes got more discriminating and I could see the impact of human activity on the planet. Clear-cut forestry, ship captains dumping their bilge tanks, oil-field flares that are out of control and just polluting the atmosphere. Earth today and its resources can barely manage to take care of seven billion people. We're going to have 10 billion people on this planet by 2050 and I'm not sure that we have the resources on earth to support 10 billion.

"Beyond Earth, for hundreds of millions of kilometers, there's nothing but black, inky void – nothing. You really get the appreciation that Earth is fragile and vulnerable. The big issues on Earth are over-population, inequality and environmental damage, and that's so plain to see from the vantage point of space. I wish every decision-maker on Earth had the opportunity to go and spend just two or three days in space, just spend that entire time just looking out the window. I think it would impact the priorities in their lives and the decisions that they make."

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About our experts

Former Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk was elected the 13th chancellor of the University of Calgary in May 2014. During his missions aboard the space shuttle Columbia and the International Space Station, Thirsk and his crewmates performed multidisciplinary research, robotic operations and maintenance tasks. Thirsk is a strong promoter of an economy based on exploration and innovation. He encourages Canadians to build their career dreams upon an educational foundation, advanced skills and lifelong learning. He works with organizations and educators to develop space-related curricula that introduce young people to the wonder of scientific discovery. View Dr. Thirsk's profile
Steven Boyd is a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, with joint appointments in the Faculty of Kinesiology and the Schulich School of Engineering. He is also the director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health. His research is in the area of orthopaedic biomechanics, focusing on adaptive changes to tissues that occur following a joint injury or disease, with particular interest in bone. View Steven's publications
Giuseppe Iaria is an associate professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at UCalgary. He is the director of NeuroLab, a cognitive neuroscience research laboratory entirely dedicated to investigating the behavioural, neurological and genetic mechanisms of orientation and navigation in humans. View Giuseppe's publications
Marjan Eggermont is a senior instructor in UCalgary’s Schulich School of Engineering. She is a Fellow and past Educational Advisory Board member for the Biomimicry Institute and a founding editor and designer of the online biomimicry journal Zygote Quarterly. Marjan has spoken on the subject of biomimicry around the world, including an invited talk at the first Biomimicry Summit and Education Forum for Aerospace in collaboration with NASA. She received the Biomimicry 3.8 Best of Biomimicry Award for Excellence in Biomimicry Education in 2013.
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