It’s really true: space wants to kill us. And this time, space is trying to kill us from the inside out.
A new study on astronauts living on board the International Space Station shows that while in space, the astronauts’ bodies destroyed 54 percent more red blood cells than they normally would on Earth. Even one year after their flight and back on Earth, the symptoms of “space anemia” persisted in the 14 astronauts tested.
While it may seem like the International Space Station is just now fully hitting its stride as far as scientific output and the ability for crew rotations from several different spacecraft, the ISS has been operating with astronauts on board for over 21 years. Knowing the modules and entire physical structure cannot endure the long-term effects of the harsh space environment forever, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General has issued a new report outlining the agency’s plans to keep the space station in orbit until 2030, and to replace it with one or more commercial space stations.
Blue Origin has certainly stepped up its game of late! After stepping down as the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos has made it his personal mission to take the company he founded in 2000 and turn it into a powerhouse of the commercial space sector. Between some high-profile missions involving the New Shepard – which included passengers like Wally Funk, William Shatner, and even himself and his brother – Bezos has also been outspoken about his long-term vision.
Bezos describes this vision as “building a road to space so our children can build the future.” In the latest step towards achieving this, Blue Origin announced a new partnership with Sierra Space to develop a commercial space station in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), known as “Orbital Reef.” This mixed-use space station, which is to be completed by the end of this decade, will facilitate commerce, research, tourism, and facilitate the commercialization of LEO.
The International Space Station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2, was struck by a piece of space debris. But luckily, it appears to be only a flesh wound, and the arm has been cleared for nominal operations while analysis on the strike continues.
One under-appreciated space asset is the photography skills of the Russian cosmonauts on board the International Space Station. They are extremely skillful photographers who don’t get the same recognition as their astronaut counterparts in their Earth observation skills. In particular, they have taken some stunning high-oblique shots of objects close to the horizon, with almost an 3-D effect.
The Chinese space agency is building a brand new space station, and they’re going about it in a suitably impressive way: an ambitious schedule of 11 planned launches crammed into only two years. When it’s done, the 66-ton space station will host crews of three astronauts for up to six months at a time, lasting for a planned 10 years before de-orbiting.
After months of discussion, the space agencies behind the Lunar Gateway have decided how the space station will orbit the Moon. NASA and the ESA are developing the Lunar Gateway jointly, and the orbital path that it will follow around the Moon is a key part of mission design. It’ll affect all the vital aspects of the mission, including how spacecraft will rendezvous and land at the station.
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.
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.
In 1996, something remarkable happened at NASA. Twin brothers Mark and Scott Kelly were accepted into NASA; Mark as a shuttle pilot, and Scott into technical operations on the ground, at least initially. Eventually, both brothers became astronauts. They are the only siblings to have both been in space.
Whether it was intentional or not, having twin brothers gave NASA an important opportunity. They could use one twin as a control group, and send the other on a prolonged mission into space. That allowed NASA to carry out important research on the effects of space travel on the human body.
In March 2016, Scott Kelly returned from a year long (340 days) mission aboard the International Space Station, while his brother Mark stayed on Earth. Genetic samples were taken from each brother before and after Scott’s time aboard the ISS. Now, NASA has released the preliminary results of this unprecedented opportunity.
NASA’s Human Research Program did the study, and the results were released at their Investigator’s Workshop on the week of January 23rd. The theme of that workshop was A New Dawn: Enabling Human Space Exploration. Though the studies are on-going, these initial results are interesting.
Mike Snyder, who is the Integrated Omics investigator, reported his findings. He found an altered level of lipids in Scott, the flight twin, which indicates inflammation. He also found increased 3-indolepropionic (IPA) in Mark, the ground twin. IPA is a potential brain antioxidant therapeutic, and also helps maintain normal insulin levels, to stabilize blood sugar after meals.
Telomeres and Telomerase
Telomeres and Telomerase are part of the chromosomal system in the human body. Susan Bailey reported that for Scott, the flight twin, the length of his white blood cell’s telomeres increased while in space. Typically, they decrease as a person ages. Once on Earth, they began to shorten again.
Telomerase, an enzyme that repairs telomeres, increased in both brothers in November, which could be related to a stressful family event at that time.
Cognitive Performance in Spaceflight
Mathias Basner is studying Cognitive Performance in Spaceflight, especially the difference in cognition between a 12-month mission and a six-month mission. Though he found a slight decrease in speed and accuracy after the mission, he found no real difference in cognition between 6 month and 12 month missions.
Scott Smith’s investigation into biochemistry showed a decrease in bone density during the second half of Scott’s mission. Scott also had increased levels of a biochemical marker for inflammation once he returned to Earth.
Microbiome in the Gastro-Intestinal Tract
Fred Turek reported preliminary results of his investigation into the bacteria in the GI (microbiome) tract that help digestion. There were many differences in the twins’ biomes, but that was expected because of their different diets and environments. There were interesting differences in Scott’s biome between his time in space and his time on the ground. The ratio between two dominant bacterial groups shifted during his flight time compared to his ground time.
Emmanuel Mignot investigated changes in the bodies of both twins before and after a flu vaccine was given. Both twins showed increased levels of T-cell receptors after the vaccine, which was the expected immune response.
Chris Mason is performing Genome Sequencing on the DNA and RNA contained within the twins’ white blood cells with his investigation. RNA sequencing showed that over 200,000 RNA molecules were expressed differently between the twins. Mason will look closer to see if a “space gene” could have been activated while Scott was in space.
Andy Feinberg studies how the environment regulates our gene expression, which is known as epigenomics. Scott’s white blood cell DNA showed decreased levels of chemical modification while in flight, and a return to normal once back on Earth. The same level in Mark (the ground twin) increased midway through the study, but then returned to normal. There was variability between the twins, called epigenetic noise. This noise was higher in Scott during his spaceflight, and returned to baseline levels once back on Earth. This could indicate that some genes are more sensitive to the changing environment of spaceflight than others.
There’s a lot more research required to truly understand these results. Once they’re looked at in coordination with other physiological, psychological, and technological investigations, the picture will become clearer. Later in 2017, there will be a joint publication of further results, as well as individual research papers.
NASA’s goal is to make space travel safer for astronauts, and to make missions more effective and efficient. With all the talk of missions to Mars in the next decade, these results are arriving at the perfect time.