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How to slow down space-ageing

Life in outer space has been found to have profound effects on the body, including muscle and bone loss, and impaired circulation. Image credit: Shutterstock/iurii
Life in outer space has been found to have profound effects on the body, including muscle and bone loss, and impaired circulation. Image credit: Shutterstock/iurii

A human centrifuge is helping turn back the clock on space-ageing – the process by which six months away from earth can make your body seem 20 years older.

Space tourism may soon become a reality. And scientists are looking forward to the first manned missions to other planets, such as Mars.

But in our extra-terrestrial quest, we sometimes forget just how well adapted we are to life on our planet – and how poorly equipped for surviving in space. We need the oxygen of earth’s atmosphere for example, and gravity keeps our bones and blood circulation healthy.

Astronauts’ bodies can age prematurely as a result of spending months away from our planet. The lack of gravity can continue to affect them back on earth, where they suffer from poor blood pressure regulation.

But all is not lost, as pioneering scientists are already finding ways to help astronauts – and in doing so, they may also help space tourists and even ordinary people back on earth. 

Dr Carole Leguy, from DLR, the German Aerospace Center, is working on an EU-funded project called Arthero-Space, studying the effects of lack of gravity on people’s bodies, specifically blood circulation. 

‘By helping astronauts we wish to help people on earth.’

Dr Carole Leguy, DLR-Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Cologne

On earth, gravity pulls our blood towards our legs, whereas in space more blood goes to the upper body. This reduces total blood volume, so when the astronauts return and their blood rushes to their legs, this can leave them faint.

‘When the astronauts come back to earth, they are not able to maintain their blood pressure, and then they will faint, won’t be able to stand for (a) long time, and that really impairs their working capacity,’ she said. 

Land on Mars

This could be troublesome for any manned mission to other planets. ‘It could be very dramatic if they need to land on Mars, for example, and they need to sustain one third of earth gravity when standing – you don’t want them to be weak at that point, you don’t want them to faint.’

As a way to counteract this, Dr Leguy and the DLR team are working out how best to use a human centrifuge that is shorter than usual in order to produce artificial gravity inside a space ship and help astronauts stay healthy. In space, the centrifuge would spin around, possibly powered by a cycling astronaut - which would also help them exercise and keep healthy - providing a gravity gradient towards the feet as it spins. It works a bit like a carousel on a children’s playground, as it spins the blood rushes to outer parts of your body.

 Human centrifuges could be used to create artificial gravity in spaceHuman centrifuges have been used for decades to train astronauts to tolerate the hypergravity generated during space launches. More recently, they are being investigated as a means of creating artificial gravity in space. Image credit: DLR.

To understand what happens to our blood vessels and the properties of their walls during a long-term space mission, she is planning to study arterial aging processes during a bedrest study led by the European space Agency. During such studies, participants lie in bed for extended periods of time because the posture mimics some of the effects of low gravity on the human body.

Knowing how to help returning astronauts could also help treat age-related illnesses and high blood pressure among people who have no plans for space travel. ‘Techniques used for space research and exploration always end up having applications to earth,’ said Dr Leguy. ‘By helping astronauts we wish to help people on earth.’

Robotic helper

We’ve all seen how bulky and awkward Neil Armstrong looked just walking on the surface of the Moon. Now imagine flying over to Mars, moving around its surface and doing detailed work – it would be quite tricky.

An EU-funded project called Moonwalk, run by Dr Thomas Vögele, from the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, is designing robots that can help astronauts perform difficult tasks on other planets.

The robots look similar to today’s ‘rovers’, small vehicles that researchers send into space on their own. The trick for Dr Vögele’s team is to develop a robot that astronauts can control from inside their bulky suits.

‘You can’t steer a robot with a joystick so you have to look into ways to control it differently,’ said Dr Vögele. ‘Speech control would be an option, or a wrist pad. Gesture is another option that we’re looking into. The idea is that you can give signals to the robot and it helps you.’

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