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11 December 2023

Sex in space? beware the radiation, scientists say

Picture used for illustrative purposes only. (GETTY IMAGES)

By Agency

Sex in space is a touchy subject for NASA, whose code of conduct for astronauts dictates that "relationships of trust" and "professional standards" are to be maintained at all times. But the logical outgrowth of human space exploration is colonization, write Straume and his co-workers, with Mars being our closest, best bet – and that would entail reproduction.

The DNA that guides development of a fertilized embryo and the functioning of all the cells in the body is easily damaged by the kind of radiation that would bombard astronauts on a Mars voyage and ultimately on the planet itself.

Radiation spoils space sex

One hazard comes from solar flares, which spew energetic protons across the solar system. Although the timing and intensity of such outbursts is difficult to predict in advance, these particles would be relatively easy to shield against.

Posing a tougher problem would be radiation streaming in from outside the solar system.

So-called galactic cosmic rays consist largely of very high-energy protons, but they also include charged atomic nuclei running up the periodic table all the way to iron, which is quite heavy, atomically speaking. Such charged particles can blow apart biological molecules such as DNA and would easily rip through the aluminum shielding of a spacecraft traveling through interplanetary space.

Space pregnancies are risky

A child conceived in space would also be likely to suffer from other problems as well.

Cells divide and differentiate very rapidly during gestation, and damage to a single cell destined to become the brain or another organ could easily be amplified. Straume said the dose of radiation received by a fetus on a trip to Mars could likely result in severe mental retardation or other deficits.