One of the obstacles to long space missions is the muscle loss that astronauts suffer from. It’s called atrophy, and NASA says that astronauts can lose up to 20% muscle mass during missions of only 5 to 11 days. This muscle loss affects what are called “anti-gravity muscles,” including calf muscles, the quadriceps and the muscles of the back and neck.
This muscle loss makes it hard for astronauts to complete their tasks, especially when missions to Mars happen. It can also be very dangerous to astronauts, because they’re weakened when they return to Earth. If there are problems during re-entry, and they need to perform any strenuous emergency procedures, that missing muscle could be the difference between life and death.
One of the most notable features of the modern space age is the way that new participants are entering the fray. In addition to the traditional contenders – NASA and Roscosmos – China has become a major player in space in recent decades. And in 2022, according tor recent statements, India will join the club too when it becomes the fourth nation to send a crewed mission to space.
During a cabinet-level meeting that took place on Friday, Dec. 25th, the government of India announced that the Indian Space Research Organization‘s (ISRO) first crewed mission to space will consist of a three-astronaut team being sent to orbit. The government also announced that they had a approved a budget of $1.4 billion to fund the development of the requisite technology and infrastructure for the program.
The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying crew to the ISS was aborted shortly after launch on Thursday, Oct. 11th when its booster failed. The spacecraft executed an emergency ballistic landing with a sharp angle of descent. Both crew members on board—American astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin—exited the capsule safely and are in good condition.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has made immense progress since the turn of the century. From its humble beginnings, launching satellites into orbit between 1975 and 2000, the ISRO sent their first mission to the Moon in October of 2008 (the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter), followed by their first mission to Mars – the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) – in November of 2013.
And in the coming years, the ISRO intends to become the fourth space agency to send astronauts into space. In so doing, they will join an exclusive club of space agencies that consists of only Russia, the United States and China. Last week (on September 7th, 2018) the organization unveiled the spacesuit that their astronauts will be wearing when they make this historic journey.
Even if you know nothing about hurricanes, an unavoidable sense of doom and destruction overtakes you when you look at this image of Hurricane Florence as it moves inexorably toward North and South Carolina.
Even if you didn’t know that the powerful storm is forecast to gain strength as it hits the coast on Friday, or that it will dump several months of rain onto the region in a mere few days, or that the storm surge could reach as high as 9 to 13 ft. If you didn’t know all those things, the picture of Florence taken from space would still fill you with foreboding.
The microgravity in space causes a number of problems for astronauts, including bone density loss and muscle atrophy. But there’s another problem: weightlessness allows astronauts’ spines to expand, making them taller. The height gain is permanent while they’re in space, and causes back pain.
A new SkinSuit being tested in a study at King’s College in London may bring some relief. The study has not been published yet.
The constant 24 hour microgravity that astronauts live with in space is different from the natural 24 hour cycle that humans go through on Earth. Down here, the spine goes through a natural cycle associated with sleep.
Sleeping in a supine position allows the discs in the spine to expand with fluid. When we wake up in the morning, we’re at our tallest. As we go about our day, gravity compresses the spinal discs and we lose about 1.5 cm (0.6 inches) in height. Then we sleep again, and the spine expands again. But in space, astronauts spines have been known to grow up to 7 cm. (2.75 in.)
Study leader David A. Green explains it: “On Earth your spine is compressed by gravity as you’re on your feet, then you go to bed at night and your spine unloads – it’s a normal cyclic process.”
In microgravity, the spine of an astronaut is never compressed by gravity, and stays unloaded. The resulting expansion causes pain. As Green says, “In space there’s no gravitational loading. Thus the discs in your spine may continue to swell, the natural curves of the spine may be reduced and the supporting ligaments and muscles — no longer required to resist gravity – may become loose and weak.”
The SkinSuit being developed by the Space Medicine Office of ESA’s European Astronaut Centre and the King’s College in London is based on work done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It’s a spandex-based garment that simulates gravity by squeezing the body from the shoulders to the feet.
The Skinsuits were tested on-board the International Space Station by ESA astronauts Andreas Mogensen and Thomas Pesquet. But they could only be worn for a short period of time. “The first concepts were really uncomfortable, providing some 80% equivalent gravity loading, and so could only be worn for a couple of hours,” said researcher Philip Carvil.
Back on Earth, the researchers worked on the suit to improve it. They used a waterbed half-filled with water rich in magnesium salts. This re-created the microgravity that astronauts face in space. The researchers were inspired by the Dead Sea, where the high salt content allows swimmers to float on the surface.
“During our longer trials we’ve seen similar increases in stature to those experienced in orbit, which suggests it is a valid representation of microgravity in terms of the effects on the spine,” explains researcher Philip Carvil.
Studies using students as test subjects have helped with the development of the SkinSuit. After lying on the microgravity-simulating waterbed both with and without the SkinSuit, subjects were scanned with MRI’s to test the SkinSuit’s effectiveness. The suit has gone through several design revisions to make it more comfortable, wearable, and effective. It’s now up to the Mark VI design.
“The Mark VI Skinsuit is extremely comfortable, to the point where it can be worn unobtrusively for long periods of normal activity or while sleeping,” say Carvil. “The Mk VI provides around 20% loading – slightly more than lunar gravity, which is enough to bring back forces similar to those that the spine is used to having.”
“The results have yet to be published, but it does look like the Mk VI Skinsuit is effective in mitigating spine lengthening,” says Philip. “In addition we’re learning more about the fundamental physiological processes involved, and the importance of reloading the spine for everyone.”
Geoscience researchers at Penn State University are finally figuring out what organic farmers have always known: digestive waste can help produce food. But whereas farmers here on Earth can let microbes in the soil turn waste into fertilizer, which can then be used to grow food crops, the Penn State researchers have to take a different route. They are trying to figure out how to let microbes turn waste directly into food.
There are many difficulties with long-duration space missions, or with lengthy missions to other worlds like Mars. One of the most challenging difficulties is how to take enough food. Food for a crew of astronauts on a 6-month voyage to Mars, and enough for a return trip, weighs a lot. And all that weight has to be lifted into space by expensive rockets.
Carrying enough food for a long voyage in space is problematic. Up until now, the solution for providing that food has been focused on growing it in hydroponic chambers and greenhouses. But that also takes lots of space, water, and energy. And time. It’s not really a solution.
“It’s faster than growing tomatoes or potatoes.” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences
What the researchers at Penn State, led by Professor of Geosciences Christopher House, are trying to develop, is a method of turning waste directly into an edible, nutritious substance. Their aim is to cut out the middle man, as it were. And in this case, the middle men are plants themselves, like tomatoes, potatoes, or other fruits and vegetables.
“We envisioned and tested the concept of simultaneously treating astronauts’ waste with microbes while producing a biomass that is edible either directly or indirectly depending on safety concerns,” said Christopher House, professor of geosciences, Penn State. “It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo.'”
The Penn State team propose to use specific microorganisms to turn waste directly into edible biomass. And they’re making progress.
At the heart of their work are things called microbial reactors. Microbial reactors are basically vessels designed to maximize surface area for microbes to populate. These types of reactors are used to treat sewage here on Earth, but not to produce an edible biomass.
“It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo.'” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences
To test their ideas, the researchers constructed a cylindrical vessel four feet long by four inches in diameter. Inside it, they allowed select microorganisms to come into contact with human waste in controlled conditions. The process was anaerobic, and similar to what happens inside the human digestive tract. What they found was promising.
“Anaerobic digestion is something we use frequently on Earth for treating waste,” said House. “It’s an efficient way of getting mass treated and recycled. What was novel about our work was taking the nutrients out of that stream and intentionally putting them into a microbial reactor to grow food.”
One thing the team discovered is that the process readily produces methane. Methane is highly flammable, so very dangerous on a space mission, but it has other desirable properties when used in food production. It turns out that methane can be used to grow another microbe, called Methylococcus capsulatus. Methylococcus capsulatus is used as an animal food. Their conclusion is that the process could produce a nutritious food for astronauts that is 52 percent protein and 36 percent fats.
“We used materials from the commercial aquarium industry but adapted them for methane production.” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences
The process isn’t simple. The anaerobic process involved can produce pathogens very dangerous to people. To prevent that, the team studied ways to grow microbes in either an alkaline environment or a high-heat environment. After raising the system pH to 11, they found a strain of the bacteria Halomonas desiderata that thrived. Halomonas desiderata is 15 percent protein and 7 percent fats. They also cranked the system up to a pathogen-killing 158 degrees Fahrenheit, and found that the edible Thermus aquaticus grew, which is 61 percent protein and 16 percent fats.
Their system is based on modern aquarium systems, where microbes live on the surface of a filter film. The microbes take solid waste from the stream and convert it to fatty acids. Then, those fatty acids are converted to methane by other microbes on the same surface.
Speed is a factor in this system. Existing waste management treatment typically takes several days. The team’s system removed 49 to 59 percent of solids in 13 hours.
This system won’t be in space any time soon. The tests were conducted on individual components, as proof of feasibility. A complete system that functioned together still has to be built. “Each component is quite robust and fast and breaks down waste quickly,” said House. “That’s why this might have potential for future space flight. It’s faster than growing tomatoes or potatoes.”
John B. Charles, Ph.D., is the Chief Scientist of NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP), responsible for the scientific direction of human research and technology development enabling astronauts to go beyond low Earth orbit and eventually to Mars.
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In the space of just 3 days, a pair of NASA astronauts conducted an unplanned and rapidly executed contingency space walk on the exterior of the space station on Tuesday, May 23 in order to replace a critical computer unit that failed over the weekend.
The spacewalk was conducted by Expedition 51 Commander Peggy Whitson – NASA’s most experienced astronaut – and Flight Engineer Jack Fischer aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
This marked the 10th spacewalk for Whitson – who already has the most cumulative spacewalk time by a female and the most time in space by a NASA astronaut. This was Fischer’s second spacewalk.
Furthermore Whitson now moves into third place all-time for cumulative spacewalking time totaling 60 hours, 21 minutes. Only Russia’s Anatoly Solovyev and NASA’s Michael Lopez-Alegria have more spacewalking time to their credit.
NASA managers ordered the spacewalk over the weekend when a computer unit known as multiplexer-demultiplexer-1 (MDM-1) unexpectedly failed Saturday morning, May 20 at 1:13 p.m. Central time.
The cause of the MDM failure is not known, says NASA. Multiple attempts by NASA flight controllers to restore power to the MDM-1 relay box were not successful.
The US dynamic duo successfully changed out the MDM computer relay box with a spare unit on board the station. They also installed a pair of antennas on the station on the U.S. Destiny Laboratory module to enhance wireless communication for future spacewalks.
The MDM functions as a data relay box and is located on the S0 truss on the exterior of the US segment of the ISS, thereby necessitating a spacewalk by astronaut crew members.
After NASA engineers thoroughly assessed the situation and reviewed spacewalk procedures on Sunday, May 21, they gave the go ahead for Whitson and Fischer to carry out the hurriedly arranged extravehicular activity (EVA) spacewalk on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Whitson worked on Sunday to prepare the spare data relay box and test its components to ensure it was ready for Tuesdays swap out of the failed unit.
“The relay box, known as a multiplexer-demultiplexer (MDM), is one of two units that regulate the operation of radiators, solar arrays and cooling loops.” says NASA.
“Because each MDM is capable of performing the critical station functions, the crew on the station was never in danger and station operations have not been affected.”
The two MDM’s housed in the truss are fully redundant systems.
“The other MDM in the truss is functioning perfectly, providing uninterrupted telemetry routing to the station’s systems.”
The spacewalk began Tuesday morning, May 23 at 7:20 a.m. EDT when the two NASA astronauts switched their spacesuits to battery power.
While Whitson focused on the MDM swap, Fischer worked on the antenna installation.
The unplanned spacewalk marks the second this month by Whitson and Fischer. The first was on May 12 and the 200th overall. The Destiny module antenna installation was deferred from the May 12 spacewalk.
The relatively short EVA lasted a total of two hours and 46 minutes. It concluded at 10:06 a.m. EDT.
Overall this was the 201st spacewalk in support of the space station assembly, maintenance and upgrade. Spacewalkers have now spent a total of 1,250 hours and 41 minutes working outside the orbiting lab complex since its inception.
Spacewalk 201 was also the sixth spacewalk conducted from the Quest airlock in 2017 aboard the ISS.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
People who plan and conduct space missions never tire of telling us how hard it is to do things in space.
Our next big goal is getting humans to Mars, and establishing a colony there. There are a multitude of technical and engineering hurdles to be overcome, but we think we can do it.
But the other side of the coin is the physiological hurdles to be overcome. Those may prove to be much more challenging to deal with. NASA’s twins study is poised to add an enormous amount of data to our growing body of knowledge on the effects of space travel on human beings.
Astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly are the basis of NASA’s study. Scott spent a year in space, returning to Earth on March 1st 2016, after spending 340 days aboard the ISS. Mark, himself a retired astronaut, remained on Earth during Scott’s year in space, providing a baseline for studying the effects on the human body of such a prolonged period of time away from Earth.
In February of 2016, NASA released preliminary results of the study. Now, the team studying the results of the twins study has started integrating the data. The way they’re doing this sets it apart from other studies.
“No one has ever looked this deeply at a human subject and profiled them in this detail.” – Tejaswini Mishra, Ph.D., Stanford University School of Medicine.
Typically, individual studies are released to appropriate journals more or less one at a time. But in the twins study, the data will be integrated and summarized before individual papers are published on separate themes. The idea is that taken together, their impact on our understanding of prolonged time in space will be much greater.
“The beauty of this study is when integrating rich data sets of physiological, neurobehavioral and molecular information, one can draw correlations and see patterns,” said Tejaswini Mishra, Ph.D., research fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine, who is creating the integrated database, recording results and looking for correlations. “No one has ever looked this deeply at a human subject and profiled them in this detail. Most researchers combine maybe two to three types of data but this study is one of the few that is collecting many different types of data and an unprecedented amount of information.”
“Each investigation within the study complements the other.” – Brinda Rana, Ph.D., U of C, San Diego School of Medicine
Mike Snyder, Ph.D, is the head of a team of people at Stanford that will work to synthesize the data. There are roughly three steps in the overall process:
Individual researchers in areas like cognition, biochemistry, and immunology will analyze and compile their data then share their results with the Stanford team.
The Stanford team will then further integrate those results into larger data sets.
Those larger data sets will then be reviewed and analyzed to confirm and modify the initial findings.
“There are a lot of firsts with this study and that makes it exciting,” said Brinda Rana, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry, University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “A comparative study with one twin in space and one on Earth has never been done before. Each investigation within the study complements the other.”
NASA compares the twins study, and the new integrated method of handling all the results, to conducting a symphony. Each study is like an instrument, and instead of each one playing a solo, they will be added into a greater whole. The team at Stanford is like the conductor. If you’ve ever listened to an orchestra, you know how powerful that can be.
“The human systems in the body are all intertwined which is why we should view the data in a holistic way,” said Scott M. Smith, Ph.D., NASA manager for nutritional biochemistry at the Johnson Space Center. He conducts biochemical profiles on astronauts and his research is targeted to specific metabolites, end products of various biological pathways and processes.
“It is a more comprehensive way to conduct research.” – Chris Mason, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Physiology and Biophysics Weill Cornell Medicine
Chris Mason Ph.D., at Weill Cornell Medicine said, “Both the universe and the human body are complicated systems and we are studying something hard to see. It’s like having a new flashlight that illuminates the previously dark gears of molecular interactions. It is a more comprehensive way to conduct research.”
Scientists involved with the twins study are very clearly excited about this new approach. Having twin astronauts is an extraordinary opportunity, and will advance our understanding of spaceflight on human physiology enormously.
“There is no doubt, the learnings from integrating our data will be priceless,” said Emmanuel Mignot, M.D., Ph.D., director of Center for Sleep Science and Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine. He studies the immune system and is enthusiastic to study specific immune cell populations because many of the other immune studies focus only on general factors.
A summary of the early results should be out by early 2018, or possible late 2017. Individual papers on more detailed themes will follow shortly.