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.
Ever since childhood, we were all told to never play with fire. Despite it being relevant to our everyday lives, to include heating our homes and water, cooking our food, producing electricity, and more, fire is extremely dangerous. We were all indoctrinated more with how to put out fires instead of how to start one. We’ve all been told about its destructive properties if mishandled, and that fire needs to be controlled. One of the perks of adulthood, and especially being a scientist, is you get paid to play with fire. Despite fire’s complexities, there’s still a lot we don’t know about its behavior. With more and more of humanity traveling to space and living in microgravity, it’s important to learn about how fire behaves in this unique environment to better prepare ourselves for worst case scenarios. But what if we could also control fire so it’s not as dangerous and less destructive to the environment back here on Earth?
In this decade and the next, humanity is poised to go to space like never before. National space agencies will be sending astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, private launch services will spearhead the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), missions to the outer Solar System will search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, and crewed missions to Mars are on the horizon.
In preparation for this, a considerable amount of research is being done aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to determine how extended periods of time in space can affect living beings on the genetic level. In a recent experiment, a team of researchers from the University of Exeter conducted an analysis of worms on the ISS and noted “subtle changes” in their genetic makeup.
The ESA has a science lab on the International Space Station called Columbus. Inside that lab is the Fluid Science Laboratory, dedicated to studying the behaviour of fluids in microgravity. Currently, that lab is being used to study a substance most of us probably don’t spend much time thinking about: foam.
There are a number of health risks that come with going to space. Aside from the increased exposure to solar radiation and cosmic rays, there are the notable effects that microgravity can have on human physiology. As Scott Kelly can attest, these go beyond muscle and bone degeneration and include diminished organ function, eyesight, and even changes at the genetic level.
Interestingly enough, there are also a number of potential medical benefits to microgravity. Since 2014, Dr. Joshua Choi, a senior lecturer in biomedical engineering at the University of Technology Sydney, has been investigating how microgravity affects medicine and cells in the human body. Early next year, he and his research team will be traveling to the ISS to test a new method for treating cancer that relies on microgravity.
What sounds like a slap-stick comedy shtick is actually solid science. With so much of humanity’s space-faring future involving habitats, other structures, and a permanent presence on the Moon and Mars, mixing concrete in space is serious business. NASA has a program of study called MICS, (Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification) which is examining how we might build habitats or other structures in microgravity.