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Update March 2019


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Science & Nature
 

Year in space put US astronaut's disease defenses on alert

In this March 26, 2015 file photo, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, right, crew member of the mission to the International Space Station, stands behind glass in a quarantine room, behind his brother, Mark Kelly, also an astronaut. Nearly a year in space put Scott Kelly's immune system on high alert and changed the activity of some of his genes compared to his Earth-bound identical twin, according to a report released on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

Lauran Neergaard & Seth Borenstein

Washington (AP) - Nearly a year in space put astronaut Scott Kelly's immune system on high alert and changed the activity of some of his genes compared to his Earth-bound identical twin, researchers said Friday.

Scientists don't know if the changes were good or bad but results from a unique NASA twins study are raising new questions for doctors as the space agency aims to send people to Mars.

Tests of the genetic doubles gave scientists a never-before opportunity to track details of human biology, such as how an astronaut's genes turn on and off in space differently than at home. One puzzling change announced Friday at a science conference: Kelly's immune system was hyperactivated.

"It's as if the body is reacting to this alien environment sort of like you would a mysterious organism being inside you," said geneticist Christopher Mason of New York's Weill Cornell Medicine, who helped lead the study. He said doctors are now looking for that in other astronauts.

Since the beginning of space exploration, NASA has studied the toll on astronauts' bodies, such as bone loss that requires exercise to counter. Typically they're in space about six months at a time. Kelly, who lived on the International Space Station, spent 340 days in space and set a U.S. record.

"I've never felt completely normal in space," the now-retired Kelly said in an email to The Associated Press, citing the usual congestion from shifting fluid, headaches and difficulty concentrating from extra carbon dioxide, and digestive complaints from microgravity.

But this study was a unique dive into the molecular level, with former astronaut Mark Kelly, Scott's twin, on the ground for comparison. Full results haven't yet been published, but researchers presented some findings Friday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A number of genes connected to the immune system became hyperactive, Mason said. It's not a change in DNA but in what's called "gene expression," how genes turn off and on and increase or decrease their production of proteins. Mason also spotted a spike in the bloodstream of another marker that primes the immune system. Yet at the same time, Kelly's blood showed fewer of another cell type that's an early defense against viruses.

It's not a surprise that gene activity would change in space - it changes in response to all kinds of stress.

"You can see the body adapting to the change in its environment," Mason said.

The good news: Most everything returned to normal shortly after Kelly got back on Earth in March 2016. Those immune-related genes, however, "seemed to have this memory or this need to almost be on high alert" even six months later, Mason said.

"On the whole it's encouraging," said Craig Kundrot, who heads space life and science research for NASA. "There are no major new warning signs. We are seeing changes that we didn't necessarily anticipate" but don't know if those changes matter.

From four Russians living in space for more than a year, NASA already knew prolonged time off Earth is possible, Kundrot said, adding, "We also aim for more than just possible. We want our astronauts to do more than just survive."

Ultimately, the twin study gives NASA a catalog of things to monitor on future missions to see if other astronauts react the same way. Astronauts on future missions will be able to do some of this testing in space instead of freezing samples for scientists back home, Mason said.

Immune issues sound familiar to Dr. Jerry Linenger, an American astronaut who spent more than four months on the Russian space station Mir. He said he was never sick in orbit, but once he came back to Earth "I was probably more sick than I was in my life."

Astronauts launch into orbit with their own germs and get exposed to their crewmates' germs and then after a week with nothing else new in the "very sterile environment" of a space station "your immune system is really not challenged," Linenger said.

A human mission to Mars, which NASA hopes to launch in the 2030s, would take 30 months, including time on the surface, Kundrot said.

Radiation is a top concern. The mission would expose astronauts to galactic cosmic radiation levels higher than NASA's own safety standard. It's "just a little bit over," he said.

On Earth and even on the space station, Earth's magnetic field shields astronauts from lots of radiation. There would be no such shielding on the way to Mars and back, but tunnels or dirt-covered habitats could help a bit on Mars, Kundrot said

Kelly, who turns 55 next week, said he'd go to Mars. He said a trip that long "wouldn't be worse than what I experienced. Possibly better. I think the big physical challenge, radiation aside, will be a mission where you are in space for years."


Mars lander starts digging on red planet, hits snags

This photo provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech shows an image acquired by NASA's InSight Mars lander using its robotic arm-mounted, Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC). The image was acquired on March 1, 2019, Sol 92 where the local mean solar time for the image exposures was 16:53:31.055 PM. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

NASA's newest Mars lander has started digging into the red planet, but hit a few snags, scientists said Friday.

The German drilling instrument on the InSight lander struck what appeared to be a couple of stones. It only managed to burrow between half a foot (18 centimeters) and about 1 feet (50 centimeters), far short of the first dig's goal, said the German Aerospace Center.

The hammering device in the "mole" was developed by the Astronika engineering company in Poland.

"This is not very good news for me because although the hammer is proving itself ... the Mars environment is not very favorable to us," said the company's chief engineer, Jerzy Grygorczuk.

Over time, the team is shooting for a depth of up to 16 feet (5 meters), which would set an otherworldly record. The lander is digging deep to measure the planet's internal temperature.

InSight landed on Mars last November. Flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California sent commands to the lander Thursday to begin digging. It'll rest for a bit before burrowing again.

The spacecraft already has a seismometer on the surface, listening for potential quakes. The lander is stationary, but has a robot arm to maneuver these two main experiments. (AP)


Scientists see evidence of underground lakes system on Mars

 

This undated photo provided by the European Space Agency, ESA, shows the surface of the Mars. Scientists say images of Martian craters taken by European and American space probes show there likely once was a planet-wide system of underground lakes. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via AP)

Frank Jordans

Berlin (AP) - Scientists say images of craters taken by European and American space probes show there likely once was a planet-wide system of underground lakes on Mars.

Data collected by NASA and ESA probes orbiting the red planet provide the first geological evidence for an ancient Martian groundwater system, according to a study by researchers in Italy and the Netherlands published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Francesco Salese, one of the scientists involved, said in an email Friday that the findings confirm earlier models and smaller-scale studies, and that the underground lakes may have been connected to each other.

The notion of water on Mars has long fascinated scientists because of the possibility that the planet may have once harbored similar conditions to those that allowed life to develop on Earth. Patches of ice previously spotted on Mars provide tantalizing hints of a watery past for the arid world.

Researchers said flow channels, pool-shaped valleys and fan-shaped sediment deposits seen in dozens of kilometers-deep craters in Mars' northern hemisphere would have needed water to form.

Co-author Gian Gabriele Ori said an ocean some scientists speculate Mars may once have had between three and four billion years ago could even have been connected to the underground lakes.

The researchers also saw signs of minerals such as clay on Mars that would have required long periods of exposure to water to form. Ralf Jaumann, a planetary scientist at the German Aerospace Center who wasn't directly involved in the study, said such sites are a good starting point for future Mars landers to search for signs of ancient life.

However Jack Mustard, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University who also wasn't part of the study, questioned the paper's claims, saying he didn't see evidence of underground lakes in the data.

"But I am probably just a skeptical Martian," he added..


UPDATE

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Year in space put US astronaut's disease defenses on alert

Mars lander starts digging on red planet, hits snags

Scientists see evidence of underground lakes system on Mars