Can We Get Space Madness?

If you’ve watched any Ren and Stimpy cartoons, you know that one of the greatest hazards of spaceflight is “space madness”. Only exposure to the isolation and all pervasive radiation of deep space could drive an animated chihuahua into such a state of lunacy.

What will happen if they press the history eraser button? Maybe something good? Maybe something bad? I guess, we’ll never know.

Of course, Ren and Stimpy weren’t the first fictionalized account of people losing their marbles when they fly into the inky darkness of space. There were the Reavers from Firefly, that crazy Russian cosmonaut in Armageddon, almost everyone in the movie Sunshine, and it was the problem in every second episode of Star Trek.

The Icarus Pathfinder starship passing by Neptune. Credit: Adrian Mann
The Icarus Pathfinder starship passing by Neptune. Credit: Adrian Mann

According to movies and television, if you’ve got space madness, you and your crewmates are in for a rough ride. If you’re lucky, you merely hallucinate those familiar space sirens, begging you to take off your space helmet and join them for eternity on that asteroid over there.

But you’re just as likely to go homicidal, turning on your crewmates, killing them one by one as a dark sacrifice to the black hole that powers your ship’s stardrive.  And whatever you do, don’t stare too long at that pulsar, with its hypnotic, rhythmic pulse. The isolation, the alien psycho-waves, dark whisperings from eldritch gods speak to you though the paper-thin membrane of sanity. If we go to space, does only madness await us?

If you’ve spent any time around human beings, you know that we’ve got our share of mental disease right here on Earth. You don’t have to travel to space to suffer depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.

Once we’re in orbit, or prancing about on the surface, of Mars, we’re going to experience our share of human physical and mental frailties. We’re going to take our basic humanity to space, including our brains.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18% of the US population, or 40 million Americans suffer from some variety of anxiety-related disorder. 6.7% of adults had a major, crippling depressive episode over the course of a year.

Unless we improve treatment outcomes for mental disorders here on Earth, we can expect to see similar outcomes in space. Especially once we make exploration a little safer, and we’re not concerned with our immediate exposure to the vacuum of space. But will going to space make things worse?

Outside view of the Mir space station. Credit: NASA
Outside view of the Mir space station. Credit: NASA

NASA has carried out two studies on astronaut psychological health studies. One for the cosmonauts and astronauts on the Mir space station, and a second study for the folks on the International Space Station. They tested both the folks in space as well as their ground support staff once a week, to see how they were doing.

Although they reported some tension, there was no loss in mood or group cohesion during the mission. The crews had better cohesion when they had an effective leader on board.

Isolation working in close quarters has been heavily studied here on Earth, with submarine crews and isolated groups at research bases in Antarctica.

United States members of the second HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) crew celebrate Independence Day during their simulated 120-day Mars mission. Credit: Casey Stedman/Instagram
A previous HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. This one was only for 120 days. Credit: Casey Stedman/Instagram

Earlier this year, a crew of simulated Mars astronauts emerged, unharmed from a year-long isolation experiment in Hawaii. The six international crewmembers were part of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation experiment, to see what would happen to potential Mars explorers, stuff on the surface of the red planet for a year.

They couldn’t leave their 110 square-meter (1,200 square-foot) habitat without a spacesuit on. What did they report? Mostly boredom. Some interpersonal issues. Now that they’re out, some are good friends, and others probably won’t stay in contact, or pay too much attention to them in their Facebook feed.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t seem like there’s too much of a risk from the isolation and close quarters. Well, nothing that we’re not used to dealing with as human beings.

But there is another problem that has revealed itself, and might be much more severe: space dementia. And we’re not talking about the song from Muse.

According to researchers from the University of California, Irvine, long term exposure to the radiation of deep space will cause significant damage to our fragile human brains. Or at least, that’s what happened to a group of rats bathed in radiation at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at New York’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Over time, the damage to their brains would cause astronauts to experience a type of dementia that causes anxiety. Brain cancer patients who receive radiation treatment are prone to this as well.

Artist's concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA

During the months and years of a Mars mission, astronauts would take a large dose of radiation, even with shielding, and the effects would be harmful to their bodies and to their brains. In fact, even when the astronauts return to Earth, their condition might worsen, with more anxiety, depression, memory problems, and a loss of decision making ability. This is a serious problem that needs to be solved if humans are going to live for a long time outside the Earth’s protective magnetosphere.

It turns out, science fiction space madness isn’t a real thing, it’s a plot device like warp drives, teleporters, and light sabers.

Isolation and close proximity isn’t much of a problem, we’ve dealt with it before, and we can still work with people, even though we hate them and the way they slurp their coffee, and lean back on their chair, even though that thing is totally going to break and they’re going to hurt themselves. And they won’t stop doing it, no matter how many times we ask them to stop.

Once again, radiation in space is a big problem. It’s out there, it’s everywhere, and we don’t have a great way to protect against it. Especially when it wrecks our brains.

Dense Gas Clouds Blot The View Of Supermassive Black Holes

A supermassive black hole has been found in an unusual spot: an isolated region of space where only small, dim galaxies reside. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Gas around supermassive black holes tends to clump into immense clouds, periodically blocking the view of these huge X-ray sources from Earth, new research reveals.

Observations of 55 of these “galactic nuclei” revealed at least a dozen times when an X-ray source dimmed for a time as short as a few hours or as long as years, which likely happened when a gas cloud blotted out the signal seen from Earth. This is different than some previous models suggesting the gas was more uniform.

“Evidence for the clouds comes from records collected over 16 years by NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, a satellite in low-earth orbit equipped with instruments that measured variations in X-ray sources,” stated the Royal Astronomical Society.

“Those sources include active galactic nuclei, brilliantly luminous objects powered by supermassive black holes as they gather and condense huge quantities of dust and gas.”

You can read more in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society or in preprint version on Arxiv. Below are some different versions of the YouTube video on top, one with weather symbols and another showing a diagram with varying X-ray emission.

The research was led by Alex Markowitz, an astrophysicist at the University of California, San Diego and the Karl Remeis Observatory in Bamberg, Germany.

There have been a few neat studies lately looking at the environment around these huge objects. One examined how the black hole fuels itself, while another suggested that perhaps these singularities formed as twins before evolving.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

A Crinkle in the Wrinkle of Space-time

Albert Einstein’s revolutionary general theory of relativity describes gravity as a curvature in the fabric of spacetime. Mathematicians at University of California, Davis have come up with a new way to crinkle that fabric while pondering shockwaves.

“We show that spacetime cannot be locally flat at a point where two shockwaves collide,” says Blake Temple, professor of mathematics at UC Davis. “This is a new kind of singularity in general relativity.”

Temple and his collaborators study the mathematics of how shockwaves in a perfect fluid affect the curvature of spacetime. Their new models prove that singularities appear at the points where shock waves collide. Vogler’s mathematical models simulated two shockwaves colliding. Reintjes followed up with an analysis of the equations that describe what happens when the shockwaves cross. He dubbed the singularity created a “regularity singularity.”

“What is surprising,” Temple told Universe Today, “is that something as mundane as the interaction of waves could cause something as extreme as a spacetime singularity — albeit a very mild new kind of singularity. Also surprising is that they form in the most fundamental equations of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the equations for a perfect fluid.”

The results are reported in two papers by Temple with graduate students Moritz Reintjes and Zeke Vogler in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

Einstein revolutionized modern physics with his general theory of relativity published in 1916. The theory in short describes space as a four-dimensional fabric that can be warped by energy and the flow of energy. Gravity shows itself as a curvature of this fabric. “The theory begins with the assumption that spacetime (a 4-dimensional surface, not 2 dimensional like a sphere), is also “locally flat,” Temple explains. “Reintjes’ theorem proves that at the point of shockwave interaction, it [spacetime] is too “crinkled” to be locally flat.”

We commonly think of a black hole as being a singularity which it is. But this is only part of the explanation. Inside a black hole, the curvature of spacetime becomes so steep and extreme that no energy, not even light, can escape. Temple says that a singularity can be more subtle where just a patch of spacetime cannot be made to look locally flat in any coordinate system.

“Locally flat” refers to space that appears to be flat from a certain perspective. Our view of the Earth from the surface is a good example. Earth looks flat to a sailor in the middle of the ocean. It’s only when we move far from the surface that the curvature of the Earth becomes apparent. Einstein’s theory of general relativity begins with the assumption that spacetime is also locally flat. Shockwaves create an abrupt change, or discontinuity, in the pressure and density of a fluid. This creates a jump in the curvature of spacetime but not enough to create the “crinkling” seen in the team’s models, Temple says.

The coolest part of the finding for Temple is that everything, his earlier work on shockwaves during the Big Bang and the combination of Vogler’s and Reintjes’ work, fits together.

There is so much serendipity,” says Temple. “This is really the coolest part to me.
I like that it is so subtle. And I like that the mathematical field of shockwave theory, created to address problems that had nothing to do with General Relativity, has led us to the discovery of a new kind of spacetime singularity. I think this is a very rare thing, and I’d call it a once in a generation discovery.”

While the model looks good on paper, Temple and his team wonder how the steep gradients in spacetime at a “regularity singularity” could cause larger than expected effects in the real world. General relativity predicts gravity waves might be produced by the collision of massive objects, such as black holes. “We wonder whether an exploding stellar shock wave hitting an imploding shock at the leading edge of a collapse, might stimulate stronger than expected gravity waves,” Temple says. “This cannot happen in spherical symmetry, which our theorem assumes, but in principle it could happen if the symmetry were slightly broken.”

Image caption: Artist rendition of the unfurling of spacetime at the beginning of the Big Bang. John Williams/TerraZoom