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Scientists learn space lessons from Antarctic bases

In the depths of the Antarctic winter, expeditioners at Australia's research bases might as well be on the moon. Or on their way to Mars.

"When you are in Antarctica you know you can't get out - there's no rescue during winter. And that changes one's mentality," said Des Lugg, head of polar medicine at the Australian Antarctic Division from 1968-2001 and now a consultant to NASA.

"You can get back faster from the international space station than you can from the Antarctic in the depths of winter," he said.

It's that very isolation that makes Australia's Antarctic bases and their expeditioners perfect for planning long-term space missions, he said.

Since 1993, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States has run a joint programme with the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) studying human health and how small groups adapt to many months of isolation working in the coldest place on earth.

"Australia's Antarctic programme has some of the most isolated stations in Antarctica where we have total isolation for up to nine months of the year," said Jeff Ayton, the division's chief medical officer.

He said Australia's Antarctic stations were good analogues for space travel and figuring out how people get along in close environments.

"It's an extreme environment and we've got real people in real hazardous situations and their survival is dependent on technology and complex systems not too dissimilar to survival in space.

"We also have wide experience of the medical conditions that can occur in Antarctic stations and they are of interest to people planning for long-term missions to Mars and other exploratory missions," Ayton added. In particular, NASA has shown interest in the division's decades-old experience in using super-generalist doctors at its bases. Some of these have been recruited from rural Australia, home of the traditional country doctor who are adept at tackling just about any medical challenge.

Doctors down south have conducted brain surgery, fixed fractures and given counselling on mental health problems. "We have managed pregnancies in Antarctica. That is part of the medical spectrum we have to deal with," Ayton said.

Such broad experience would be crucial on a long-term mission to Mars or beyond..Other medical conditions also present challenges. Studies have shown Antarctic expeditioners suffer vitamin D deficiencies through lack of sunlight, depression as well as weaker immune systems.

Ayton said studies have shown the reactivation of latent viruses, such as the Epstein-Barr virus or other members of the herpes virus family.

"It's not fully known to date what causes immune suppression. We've looked at psychological factors on the immune system. We've looked at vitamin D effects on the immune system and the stresses in small, confined environments," he said, adding studies have shown similar changes to the immune system in space.

Lugg said viruses tend to lie dormant in the body and then reactivate in space or in Antarctica.

"No one has exhibited any clinical disease. This is the other interesting thing. Although they have altered their immune status, there is no clinical disease that we've been able to detect in Antarctica to show for the altered immune response," he said.

Mental health is another top issue. Being confined to a small base with a dozen or so colleagues for months away from family and friends can be a major source of stress for some expeditioners.

 

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