Does Space Travel Cause Brain Damage?

At the end of 520 days in simulated space, the six men who participated in the Mars500 mission reported reduced brain activity. If NASA’s going to go through with the agency’s goal of sending a crewed mission to Mars in the next few decades, that’s a problem that will need to be addressed.

The agency’s gone all-in for promoting the new Matt Damon flick The Martian, based on the Andy Weir novel of the same name in which an astronaut has to figure out a way to live on the Red Planet following a severe storm, at least until a rescue crew might come to his aid. (That’s not a spoiler, it happens in the first three pages of the book.)

Don Pettit, who famously created a coffee mug for use in microgravity aboard the International Space Station, admits that he saw “flashing fairies” when falling asleep on orbit. “As I drift off, I wonder how many can dance on the head of an orbital pin.”

Buzz Aldrin reported the same thing happening to him during the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon. There’s just one problem: These flashed, caused by cosmic radiation, are invisible.

“Cosmic rays are a form of radiation, typically very high energy and often composed of just protons. Some originate from our Sun and some from outside the solar system, possibly from the supernovae of massive stars,” explains Dianna Cowern, aka Physics Girl, in a new video posted to PBS’ website. Cosmic ray visualization phenomenon are the result of rays passing through an astronaut’s optic nerve, making them think they’re seeing flashes of light. That doesn’t happen to us here on Earth because we’re protected by the planet’s magnetic field.

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