Spaceflight takes a serious toll on the human body. As NASA’s Twin Study demonstrates, long-duration stays in space lead to muscle and bone density loss. There are also notable effects on the cardiovascular, central nervous, and endocrine systems, as well as changes in gene expression and cognitive function. There’s also visual impairment, known as Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome (SANS), which many astronauts reported after spending two months aboard the International Space Station (ISS). This results from increased intracranial pressure that places stress on the optic nerve and leads to temporary blindness.
Researchers are looking for ways to diagnose and treat these issues to prepare for future missions that will involve long-duration stays beyond Earth and transits in deep space. A cross-disciplinary team of researchers led by the University of Western Australia (UWA) has developed a breakthrough method for measuring brain fluid pressure that could reduce the risk of SANS for astronauts on long-duration spaceflights. This research could have applications for the many efforts to create a human presence on the Moon in this decade and crewed missions to Mars in the next.
Roscosmos has had quite the run of bad luck lately. In addition to sanctions putting pressure on their space program and the cancellation of agreements (all due to the war in Ukraine), the Russian space agency has experienced several problems in space. On December 14th, 2022, and February 11th, 2023, two space capsules reportedly suffered radiator coolant leaks (Soyuz MS-22 and Progress 82). In addition to delivering fresh supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), one of the spacecraft (M-22) was slated to bring three members of Expedition 68 back to Earth.
Luckily, on February 25th, Russia announced it was sending another Soyuz capsule to replace the M-22 (Soyuz M-23) and retrieve the three crew members, cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, and astronaut Frank Rubio (who will return to Earth now on September 27th). In addition, Tuesday, March 28th, Russia undocked the M-22 from the ISS and successfully brought it home without crew. NASA provided live coverage of the undocking and departure of the uncrewed spacecraft via NASA TV, the agency website, and the NASA app.
Roscosmos appears to be having some issues with a spacecraft again. In December, the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft that delivered three crewmembers of Expedition 68 to the International Space Station (ISS) reported a leak in its coolant loop. On February 11th, engineers at the Russian Mission Control Center outside Moscow recorded a depressurization in Progress 82, an uncrewed cargo craft docked with the Poisk laboratory module. The cause of these leaks remains unknown, but Roscosmos engineers (with support from their NASA counterparts) will continue investigating.
In 2033, NASA and China plan to send the first crewed missions to Mars. These missions will launch every two years when Earth and Mars are at the closest points in their orbits (Mars Opposition). It will take these missions six to nine months to reach the Red Planet using conventional technology. This means that astronauts could spend up to a year and a half in microgravity, followed by months of surface operations in Martian gravity (roughly 40% of Earth gravity). This could have drastic consequences for astronaut health, including muscle atrophy, bone density loss, and psychological effects.
Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts maintain a strict exercise regimen to mitigate these effects. However, astronauts will not have the same option while in transit to Mars since their vehicles (the Orion spacecraft) have significantly less volume. To address this challenge, Professor Marni Boppart and her colleagues at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology are developing a process using regenerative cells. This work could help ensure that astronauts arrive at Mars healthy, hearty, and ready to explore!
On the afternoon of Monday, October 31st, 2022 (Halloween!), China launched the Mengtianlaboratory cabin module into space, where it will join the Tiangong modular space station. This module, whose name translates to “Dreaming of the Heavens,” is the second laboratory and final addition to Tiangong (“Palace in the Sky”). This successful launch places China one step closer to completing its first long-term space station, roughly one-fifth the mass of the International Space Station (ISS) and comparable in size to Russia’s decommissioned Mir space station.
In the coming decade, NASA and the China National Space Agency (CNSA) will send the first astronaut crews to Mars. Unlike missions to the International Space Station (ISS) or the Moon, crewed missions to Mars present several unique challenges because of the distance and transit times involved. For instance, it is only practical to send missions to Mars when our two planets are closest to each other in their orbits (known as “Opposition“), which occurs every 26 months. Even then, it can take up to nine months for spacecraft to reach Mars, creating all kinds of logistics headaches.
On top of that, there’s the need for life support systems that will maintain a breathable atmosphere inside the spacecraft. Like the system that allows astronauts to live aboard the ISS for extended periods, methods are needed to scrub waste carbon from the air and safely sequester it. HeroX, the world’s leading platform for crowdsourced solutions, has launched the NASA Particle Partition Challenge. With a total prize purse of $45,000, this competition is looking for innovative ideas on how to ensure that astronauts can breathe comfortably on the way to Mars!
Europe plans to have its own reusable spacecraft for cargo and crewed missions to LEO and beyond. It’s called SUSIE (Smart Upper Stage for Innovative Exploration). At first glance, it may look like Europe’s answer to SpaceX’s Starship, but it’s not that simple.
Space travel presents numerous challenges, not the least of which have to do with astronaut health and safety. And the farther these missions venture from Earth, the more significant they become. Beyond Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetosphere, there’s the threat of long-term exposure to solar and cosmic radiation. But whereas radiation exposure can be mitigated with proper shielding, there are few strategies available for dealing with the other major hazard: long-term exposure to microgravity.
Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts rely on a strict regimen of exercise and resistance training to mitigate the physiological effects. These include muscle atrophy, bone density loss, organ function, eyesight, and effects on cardiovascular health, gene expression, and the central nervous system. But as a recent NASA study revealed, long-duration missions to Mars and other locations in deep space will need to be equipped with artificial gravity. This study examined the effects of microgravity on fruit flies aboard the ISS and demonstrated artificial gravity provides partial protection against those changes.
What is the greatest challenge facing humans as we prepare for the first crewed missions to Mars? Solar and cosmic radiation? Atrophying bone and muscle? Growing food? How about laundry? It’s strange but true, right now we don’t have a way to clean laundry in space.
According to Russia’s news agency Tass, leaders at Roscosmos have decided to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS) after 2024. The report said that by that time, “all obligations to partners will be fulfilled.” Additionally, Russia said they want to build their own space station.