March 25th, 2006 | researchmaterial
The theory of relativity tells us that the faster you travel through space, the slower you travel through time. Rocketing to Alpha Centauriâ€”warp 9, pleaseâ€”is a good way to stay young.
Or is it?
Some researchers are beginning to believe that space travel could have the opposite effect. It could make you prematurely old.
“The problem with Einstein’s paradox is that it doesn’t fold in biologyâ€”specifically, space radiation and the biology of aging,” says Frank Cucinotta, NASA’s chief scientist for radiation studies at the Johnson Space Center.
While the astronaut is hurtling through space, Cucinotta explains, his chromosomes are exposed to penetrating cosmic rays. This can damage his telomeresâ€”little molecular “caps” on the ends of his DNA. Here on Earth, the loss of telomeres has been linked to aging.
So far, the risk hasn’t been a major concern: The effect on shuttle and space station astronauts, if any, would be very small. These astronauts orbit inside of Earth’s protective magnetic field, which deflects most cosmic rays.
But by 2018, NASA plans to send humans outside of that protective bubble to return to the moon and eventually travel to Mars. Astronauts on those missions could be exposed to cosmic rays for weeks or months at a time. Naturally, NASA is keen to find out whether or not the danger of “radiation aging” really exists, and if so, how to handle it.
Science is only now beginning to look at the question. “The reality is, we have very little information about [the link between] radiation and telomere loss,” says Jerry Shay, a cell biologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. With support from NASA, Shay and others are studying the problem. What they learn about aging could benefit everyone, on Earth and in space…