No human being has ever experienced anything like going to Mars. The journey would be the longest in human history, and as such, might require some drastic measures in order to be successful.
To meet some of the risks, scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) and the University Hospital of Dresden Technical University in Germany (TUD) have used 3D printing to produce their first bioprinted skin and bone samples. And to prove that the system could work in low-gravity, they did the 3D printing upside down.
“A journey to Mars or other interplanetary destinations will involve several years in space,” says Tommaso Ghidini, head of ESA’s Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division, in a press statement. “The crew will run many risks, and returning home early will not be possible. Carrying enough medical supplies for all possible eventualities would be impossible in the limited space and mass of a spacecraft."
"Instead," Ghidini continues, "a 3D bioprinting capability will let them respond to medical emergencies as they arise. In the case of burns, for instance, brand new skin could be bioprinted instead of being grafted from elsewhere on the astronaut’s body, doing secondary damage that may not heal easily in the orbital environment."
If astronauts were to get injured on their journey to Mars, or any other planet, the TUD experiment shows that they would create a skin graft through a limited but readily available resource—their own blood.
“Skin cells can be bioprinted using human blood plasma as a nutrient-rich 'bio-ink,' which would be easily accessible from the mission crewmembers,” explains TUD's Nieves Cubo in the press statement.
Under normal conditions on Earth, that might be enough. But low gravity means plasma's fluid consistency wouldn't work. After accessing their own plasma, the injured astronauts would then turn to plants and algae, scientists say, to complete the transformation.
Cubo says their team, working with the life sciences experts at Blue Horizon, "developed a modified recipe by adding methylcellullose and alginate to increase the viscosity of the substrate. Astronauts could obtain these substances from plants and algae, respectively, a feasible solution for a self-contained space expedition."
Both methycellullose and alginate act as thickeners and binders, making things less likely to fall apart. In space, keeping everything together is crucial. And on a mission to Mars, storage capacity would be equally important; every square inch taken up by medical supplies is another that would mean less food, or scientific equipment.
While medical needs are obviously a priority that can't be avoided, finding a way to make them more compact is vital for future exploration.