24 Feb 2022

Talking to Mars

At its furthest point, Mars is 1000 times further away from Earth than the moon, which throws up all sorts of difficulties for humans. Until now, the biggest head-scratcher for space agencies planning this kind of mission was latency – the lag in communication caused by the finite speed of light. It will be up to 22 minutes during a three-year mission and the consequences for the astronauts could be biologically catastrophic.

One Scottish company, Braided Communications, has developed a product using a combination of psychiatry and astrophysics, which will allow astronauts to share moments with their loved ones.

“When we're with people we're close to, our nervous systems begin to co-regulate,” explained co-founder Drew Smithsimmons.“When we're separated from our intimate relationships, it sets off a biological alarm in the nervous system. It can be very dangerous. The way that alarm gets settled down is when you phone home and have contact because even though your bodies are a long way away from each other, if you're in the same shared moment, the nervous systems would do the co-regulation as if you were physically together. It's a wonderful thing.”

Sharing a moment when there are more than 20 minutes of time delay was previously considered impossible but Braided has developed a product which uses a carousel design to give the impression of being in the same room. “It's not complex, but some of the subtleties around the astrophysics and the distances took some time to understand,” said co-founder Rob Brougham.

“There’s a NASA flight surgeon who's a huge advocate and a close friend of ours now. He very quickly said “this is fantastic”. He introduced us to some other academics who worked in this area. It's fair to say there was a theme that astronauts and flight surgeons who've been operational, who have been on the hard end of space, seem to very, very quickly like the key principles.”

Although the first human space flight to Mars is at least a decade away, the product is proving to have terrestrial uses too. “We launched a business version of the product and early studies are showing that it reduces the risk of unconscious bias in meetings and assists less emotional, more practical decision making,” Rob said.

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