Earth's Smallest Flowering Plant Can Handle 20X Earth's Gravity

Confocal Laser Scanning Microscope image of approximately 1mm-diameter watermeal plants after hypergravity exposure. ESA.

Astronauts need to eat, and they need to breathe. That means, for long-duration missions, they are going to need to bring plants with them. But not all plants are created equal, and not all can survive the harsh conditions of space. One that might thrive on long spacefaring voyages also happens to be the smallest flowering plant on Earth.

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Artificial Gravity Tests on Earth Could Improve Astronaut Health in Space

The centrifuge at the MEDES center. Credit: MEDES–R. Gaboriaud

They’re affectionately known as “pillownauts,” volunteers who commit to spending weeks in bed to advance research into astronaut health. While bedridden, the pillownauts will lie with their heads tilted at 6° below the horizontal with their feet up to increase blood flow to their heads. They also perform work-related tasks, are subject to regular medical exams, and take their meals, showers, and bathroom breaks, all while remaining in bed. The purpose of this research is to simulate the effects of weightlessness on the human body, including muscle atrophy, bone density loss, and cognitive effects.

The European Space Agency (ESA) recently kicked off another round of pillownaut research, the Bed Rest with Artificial gravity and Cycling Exercise (BRACE) study, at the Institute for Space Medicine and Physiology (MEDES) in Toulouse, France. For this study, twelve volunteers will remain inclined (with their heads below their feet) for sixty days and exercise using cycles adapted to their beds and centrifuges that simulate gravity. Beyond measuring the effects of microgravity on astronaut health, this study also aims to measure the effectiveness of countermeasures used to address them.

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What Can Be Done to Help Astronaut Vision in Space?

Astronauts Kate Rubins (left) and Jeff Williams (right) looking out of the ISS' cupola at a SpaceX Dragon supply spacecraft. Until recently, the effects of long-duration missions on eyesight was something of a mystery. Credit: NASA

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.

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Study Shows How Cells Could Help Artemis Astronauts Exercise

NASA’s Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using a module based on Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV). Credit: NASA

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!

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Want to Stay Healthy in Space? Then you Want Artificial Gravity

A close up of three fruit flies, used for scientific research both on Earth and in space. Credits: NASA Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart

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.

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Many Astronauts Never Recover all of their Bone Density after Returning to Earth

In his book, Endurance, astronaut Scott Kelly described the arduous task of readjusting to life on Earth after spending a year in space. As part of NASA’s Twins Study, Kelly lived and worked aboard the International Space Station (ISS) while his identical twin (astronaut Mark Kelly) remained on Earth. While the results of this study revealed how prolonged exposure to microgravity could lead to all manner of physiological changes, the long and painful recovery Kelly described in his book painted a much more personal and candid picture.

As it turns out, astronauts who spend extended periods in space may never fully recover. At least, that is the conclusion reached by an international team led by the University of Calgary after they assessed the bone strength of multiple astronauts before and after they went to space. They found that after twelve months of recovery, the astronaut’s bones had not regenerated completely. These findings could have significant implications for proposed future missions, many of which involve long-duration stays in space, on the Moon, and Mars.

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Fire Acts Strangely in Microgravity. Astronauts Have Lit More Than 1,500 Fires on the Space Station to Figure Out Why

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?

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Magnetic Chamber can Simulate Microgravity (or Mars Gravity) Here on Earth

There are plenty of processes that might be easier in lower gravity.  So far, the biggest hindrance to developing those processes has been the expense of launching equipment to the low gravity environments of the ISS or other space-based research stations.  Testing on the ground would be preferable both for ease of use and much lower cost, but the Earth’s gravity usually puts a stop to that.  Some scientists see another way. Using magnetic fields can artificially simulate a zero-gravity environment, and now a team from Florida State University’s (FSU’s) National High Magnetic Field Laboratory has developed a system that can hold a much larger sample than previous iterations.

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Every Challenge Astronauts Will Face on a Flight to Mars

Nuclear-powered transit habitat
An artist's conception shows a Mars transit habitat with a nuclear propulsion system. Credit: NASA

In 1972, the Space Race officially ended as NASA sent one last crew of astronauts to the surface of the Moon (Apollo 17). This was the brass ring that both the US and the Soviets were reaching for, the “Moonshot” that would determine who had supremacy in space. In the current age of renewed space exploration, the next great leap will clearly involve sending astronauts to Mars.

This will present many challenges that will need to be addressed in advance, many of which have to do with simply getting the astronauts there in one piece! These challenges were the subject of a presentation made by two Indian researchers at the SciTech Forum 2020, an annual event hosted by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), RUDN University, and the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

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