A major component of solid rocket propellants called perchlorate that’s 10,000 times more abundant on Mars than in Earthly soils and sands most likely poses a threat rather than a blessing to future human colonists on the Red Planet. While it can be an important source of water and oxygen, it can be devastating to human health as it causes hypothyroidism, a disorder of the endocrine system in which the thyroid gland fails to produce enough thyroid hormone. This hormone is responsible for regulation of metabolism.

The Mars environment only allows water to exist as ice or vapor due to the planet’s thin atmosphere, but perchlorate can make it liquid despite the Martian surface’s atmospheric pressure that’s about 0.6 percent that on Earth. This component, which forms various salts, can also release oxygen as it’s broken down.

Martian salts
A major component called perchlorate that’s 10,000 times more abundant on Mars than in Earthly soils and sands most likely poses a threat rather than a blessing to future human colonists on the Red Planet. Credit: Discover Magazine

Because perchlorate has four oxygen atoms per molecule, it can be a powerful source to sustain life in Mars. Colonists could extract oxygen to pump it through life support systems of enclosed habitats located underground. Humans could then create Earth-like environments by enriching air, and these areas could probably be enclosed rather than extended across the entire Red Planet.

Perchlorate also represents a potential source of energy and scientists could take advantage of it to generate electricity for rocket propulsion. In fact, NASA’s solid rocket boosters of the space shuttle flown from 1981 to 2011 used ammonium perchlorate as the main propellant.

Not suitable for drinking water

The component was first detected in Mars soil in 2009 by NASA’s Phoenix lander, and the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed last September high concentrations of perchlorate salts.

This abundance was discovered within features on Mars’ surface that were formed thanks to recent water flows, according to a report by Discover Magazine. Dissolved salts change the chemistry so that subsurface water can sometimes emerge in liquid form.

However, that water can be toxic if people drink it, and microbial life would not be supported by it either. Not only can perchlorate cause hypothyroidism, but it’s also linked to aplastic anemia and agranulocytosis, which are conditions implied in blood cell deficiency that can be fatal. Children who depend on lactating mothers are the group at a higher risk of death from exposure to perchlorate.

Early human landings and Mars colonization could only be possible if scientists manage to take advantage of the planet’s resources to fuel spacecraft that will allow the travel between the surface and orbit. The project will also depend on scientists’ ability to create adequate environments to sustain life, but the alarming risks represent a huge obstacle to Mars colonization.

Scientists will have to find ways to remove perchlorate from the Red Planet’s water and dirt to be able to sustain human life there, especially if they have plans to grow any crops on Martian soil.

Even dust coming from dirt filled with perchlorate can contaminate air circulating through systems designed to sustain life. Other threats Mars potentially poses to human health include extreme space radiation and low gravity detrimental effects on the body.

Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to be on the International Space Station, is undergoing several medical tests at the Germany-based European Astronaut Centre, located in Cologne. Doctors are studying the physical and psychological effects of space travel, which will help find new methods to sustain life during long-term space missions.  His sense of balance is most certainly greatly affected because he is coming from an environment where there are no such things like “up” or “down” due to the lack of gravity.

Source: Discover Magazine