MSc Space Physiology & Health; Human Performance Intern, McLaren Applied Technologies
With international space agencies and the real-life Tony Stark (Elon Musk) making huge advances in rocket technology, it is likely that within the next couple of decades humankind will touch down on Mars. However, this is only half the battle. The gravity on Mars is roughly one third as strong as Earth’s. You may be thinking “great, everything will require less effort”, and you’d be right, however, there is a huge caveat to that. As we’ve found from the results of time spent in space (the longest continuous period being 14.4 months), when people are exposed to levels of gravity lower than that on Earth, losses in muscle and bone occur; predominantly, in muscles which we continually use to walk and maintain our posture. You may have heard the expression ‘use it or lose it’ - hugely applicable here. These losses can increase astronauts’ risk of injury when returning to Earth by leaving them very weak and fragile. A return mission to Mars will take around 3 YEARS to complete, mainly because of the wait for the two planets to be close enough in proximity again to allow a relatively short journey home. That’s around 12 months in microgravity and around 26 months in Martian gravity. Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that, based on the numbers, the outlook for muscle retention isn’t great. That being said, we‘re still pretty uninformed about the extent to which living on Mars will stimulate our muscles.
Recently, my colleagues and I conducted an investigation to try to shed some light on the matter. To do this properly, we needed to achieve two key things: 1) simulate walking in Mars gravity, 2) measure the activity in the muscles used for walking. With this, we compared the muscle activity produced while walking on Mars to that produced when walking on Earth, gauging the degree of muscle loss that we might expect for a mission to Mars and to inform countermeasures.
To simulate Mars gravity, we used a technique called lower body positive pressure (LBPP). There are a few different ways in which you can simulate partial gravity environments, but this one has fewer limitations than the rest. LBPP involves putting someone inside an air-tight inflatable box from the waist down. Through manipulation of the air pressure within, it can generate a lifting force, changing the weight of the person inside. Our device was designed and built by engineers at the John Ernsting Aerospace Physiology Laboratory at the Pontificia Universidade do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. With a treadmill placed underneath, the participant could then walk in simulated Mars gravity. To measure the amount of activity inside the leg muscles, we then attached electrodes to the skin at each of the muscles we were interested in (a method called electromyography) which picked up an electrical signal that muscles give off when they are being worked. The more intense the signal, the more active that muscle is while walking.
What we found was quite unexpected. The results of our investigation suggested that there was no significant difference between the muscle activity observed while walking in Mars gravity and the muscle activity observed walking on Earth. If this were to be true, then it would not be foolish to think that we could use the 26 months on the Martian surface to reverse losses in muscle and bone suffered on the outward journey in preparation for the return trip. However, there were two important variables that we failed to account for in our experiment. These variables were stride length and stride frequency when walking.
The moon is smaller than Mars, and so there is even less gravity there, but the same principle applies. With this in mind, even if the results of our experiment were to be true and the walking muscles are getting just as much activity with each step on Mars as they are on Earth, theoretically, they will be used less often. Considering our ‘use it or lose it’ principle, this would still mean muscle and bone loss to a disabling degree in the absence of effective counter strategies; which are currently lacking. More studies need to be done around this area, accounting for all variables, to further our understanding of human performance on Mars and ensure the safety of our astronauts, or we’ll be keeping Elon Musk waiting at the launch pad!
InnovaSpace Admin Director
With another year now drawn to a close, I thought it would be interesting to look back on the two very successful InnovaSpace Kids2Mars events that took place in 2018 involving questions asked by children to crew members of Mars analogue missions, one with the MDRS Crew 185 in the Utah desert and the other with the Austrian Space Forum’s AMADEE-18 mission in the Dhofar desert in Oman.
In summary, 53 children from 33 different countries from around the world had the opportunity to ask anything they wanted about travelling to and life on Mars, and very interesting answers came back from analogue astronauts and crew members who spent their time isolated in desert regions, especially chosen for their similarities to the planet Mars.
Analogue astronauts on this type of mission in general have little spare time, as they are involved in many research activities, so we knew we could not bombard them with a mountain of questions. This in fact also linked well with our aims for the Kids2Mars project, which was to involve children from as many different countries as possible – quantity of countries rather than quantity of questions. With our tagline of Space Without Borders, this aspect was of prime importance, so an end result of 33 countries was very satisfying, especially so considering the diverse range of nations involved, such as Bolivia, Bulgaria, Iceland, Mongolia and Nepal. In fact, we had questions coming from countries in 6 of the 7 continents, just missing out on Antarctica, which for obvious reasons is a little more difficult!
It was interesting to hear how the name of the planet Mars, named after the Roman god of war, was pronounced in the various languages. Certainly, the sound of the word was the same or very similar to the English pronunciation in the majority of cases, however, there were a few exceptions, such as from China, Japan, Nepal, Libya and Indian Tamil. We have extracted the word Mars, where mentioned, from all of the children’s questions and with the invaluable help of our two collaborators from Italy, Fabio Pinna and Mario Mollo, created a short video – we hope you like it!
One thing that has become obvious from all the Kids2Mars activities we have conducted is how much the subject of space and space travel arouses curiosity, and how much the young people involved in the lectures and creative pursuits have done so with great enthusiasm and interest. In our view, this is exactly why outreach activities linked to Mars or the Moon or astronauts, in fact anything involving space, can be used as a tool to capture the attention and interest of children, motivating them to give more consideration to the STEM areas of education. Although the adults of today are laying and securing the foundations of human life in space, it is our children who will build on this to become the Space Generation, and perhaps in time, even future Mars colonisers!
InnovaSpace Scientific & Strategic Consultant.
On November 21st and 22nd, 2018 I had the pleasure of visiting the laboratory of Prof. Nandu Goswami, at the Medical University of Graz, in Austria. Nandu is an Associate Professor at the university, interim head of the Division of Physiology and Head of the Gravitational Physiology and Medicine research unit. The main areas of study of his research group are cardiovascular physiology, cerebral auto-regulation and space/gravitational physiology, especially using Earth-based models of space flight.
Cardiovascular alterations encountered during space missions, such as a reduction in central venous pressure, cardiac atrophy and decreased vascular responsiveness to standing are major concerns for astronauts during and after spaceflight. On Earth, the ageing process is also linked to physiological deconditioning of the cardiovascular system, which creates a parallel with the changes in human physiology secondary to weightlessness exposure. At the Gravitational Physiology and Medicine research unit, bed rest studies are used as a ground-based simulation of microgravity to further understand the effects of deconditioning, both for the elderly on Earth and astronauts in space. This is also an area of special interest for InnovaSpace Advisor Joan Vernikos, who conducted similar research at NASA for many years and has published scientific articles and books on the topic.
InnovaSpace congratulates Nandu for his work, which is a very interesting area of research and can be seen as a good example of technological and knowledge transfer from space to Earth. Together with the InnovaSpace team, I hope we can one day collaborate with Prof. Goswami and his group in Graz.
Admin Director, InnovaSpace
A really exciting week lies ahead for the Aerospace Medicine and Rehabilitation Laboratory team of researchers from Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK. Led by Professor Nick Caplan, the team will take part in a partial-gravity parabolic flight campaign organised by the European Space Agency, the problem under investigation being one that affects many astronauts when they spend time in the microgravity of space – back pain.
It is well known that astronauts increase in height during their missions, usually between 3-5 cm. While under the influence of the gravity on Earth, the spine is compressed, rather like a spring being pushed down. Remove that force of gravity and the spring will expand and stretch, and this is what is thought to happen in space – the force of gravity is removed and so the vertebrae that make up the spine stretch out, and hence the increase in height and discomfort as connecting ligaments and support muscles extend. Over time spent in reduced gravity, research has demonstrated these muscles that connect the bones of the spine together shrink and weaken, particularly those in the lower back, as they are less required in space.
This musculoskeletal deconditioning can lead to a greater risk of spinal injury when an astronaut returns once more to an increased gravity environment, such as on Earth. Therefore, the Northumbria University experiment will examine through a technique called fine wire electromyography, which support muscles in the back are being affected by a reduction in microgravity. With this knowledge, it could be possible to develop an effective countermeasure to mitigate the muscle loss that will occur as humans spend longer durations in space, and considering the likelihood of colonies being established on the Moon or Mars.
InnovaSpace sends good luck vibes and best wishes to all the research team of the Aerospace Medicine and Rehabilitation Laboratory who will soon be boarding the Novespace Zero-G plane for 3 days of 31 parabolas a day. Hoping your equipment behaves, your data is plentiful and you all manage to not vomit up your breakfasts!
#parabolicflight #AstronautBackPain #partialgravity
In this Vlog, Dr Lucas Rehnberg, InnovaSpace SGen Hub Coordinator talks about his experience working at the Mission Support Centre in Innsbruck, Austria, providing remote assistance and monitoring to the analog astronauts and crew of the AMADEE18 Mars simulation mission, based in the Dhofar desert in Oman.
Blog written by Dr. Lucas Rehnberg, InnovaSpace SGen Hub Coordinator
In the build up to the AMADEE-18 mission in Oman in February 2018, the Austrian Space Forum is in the thick of preparation with the leadership team and the analogue astronauts (AA) undergoing intensive training. But not only this, the Austrian Space Forum, with all the excitement surrounding AMADEE-18, organised an additional weekend of training for the volunteers that are so eager to take part; this came in the form of Analog Mission Basic Training (AMBT) for AMADEE-18. I myself got caught up in this and am honoured to have taken part in this training to join fellow Mars pioneers and space enthusiasts on this endeavour to help pave the way for a future mission to Mars.
The training weekend recently took place in the beautiful city of Innsbruck, Austria, just before the opening of the Christmas markets. In this quiet city surrounded by the Alps, an international group of young scientists with a shared passion for space gathered for training. What struck me immediately was the range of nations and backgrounds of all the volunteers that were involved. There were undergraduate science students, psychologists, IT experts, doctors and space engineers, to name a few. And these individuals came from across Europe and even as far as Oman to be a part of this mission. True to its mission goals, the Austrian Space Forum, with projects like AMADEE-18, is providing outreach and opportunities for young professionals and students to engage in space life sciences by providing hands on experience. The gathering of this group of volunteers shows how space has this universal appeal, able to be cross-generations and truly be multi-disciplinary.
Lead by its President, Dr. Gernot Grömer, and the leadership team, we began our training in earnest. This training had been a fairly new innovation of the Austrian Space Forum, born from years of experience of conducting these analogue missions. With technology and software evolving so rapidly, it is easy to see how between missions individuals would need to re-validate or completely learn new skills and familiarise themselves with the latest changes in order to run a safe and efficient analogue mission. To this end, this training was developed in order to set a new standard of training for the volunteers and participants in these analogue missions.
The training began with a tour of the facilities, including seeing some of the scientific experiments that will be taken to the field, and team building exercises to break the ice and to get acquainted with our new colleagues for the up coming mission. Rapidly the group came together, with a shared passion for this common goal, this group of strangers quickly formed the new mission support team that would help run AMADEE-18.Technical lectures were broken up with some inspiring talks from Dr Grömer and his team, but also by one of the current AA, Kartik Kumar. Kartik is currently preparing for his second analogue mission, but took the time to give us a talk on his experiences of selection, training for this mission and what is it means to him to be an AA.
The bulk of the training came in the form of a ‘simulated’ or ’Sim’ mission in the actual mission support centre (MSC) in Innsbruck. We were trained with the latest software and protocols, as well as operational procedures. It was also an excellent experience to see what it is really like to work with a 10 min time delay (due to the distance from Earth, radio communication takes 10mins, one way!). This small taste of ‘hands on’ training brought it home as to what it will really be like when the mission launches (or ‘lands’) on the 8th February in Oman. The level of complexity, planning and logistics for these missions is astonishing and a real credit to the team at the Austrian Space Forum.
There is definitely a buzz in the air at the Austrian Space Forum. The passion for this mission and for what they do is palpable. From the top, with Dr Grömer, down to the newest intern, they truly love what they do, and passionately believe in what we are doing and trying to achieve with AMADEE-18 and the missions to come. The Austrian Space Forum may not have the resources or prestige of the national space agencies, however you would be foolish to think that their passion or commitment to sending mankind to Mars is no less intense. The Austrian Space Forum, in partnership with the Sultanate of Oman, has already made waves and contributed hugely to the space community with acquiring new knowledge for all to benefit from as well as galvanising students and space enthusiasts, myself included.
For those who wish to know more or simply follow AMADEE-18, there is lots of information about the mission on the OeWF website, and there will be more teasers released as the launch date approaches. Follow the build up on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) and follow the link to monitor the count down:
For further mission description, follow the below link:
Follow on social media with #oewf #AMADEE18
Blog written by Joan Vernikos PhD, Thirdage llc, Culpeper VA, USA
While teaching Pharmacology at Ohio State University (OSU), I was lured to NASA Ames Research Center in 1964 by Dr.Eric Ogden, the Chair in Physiology at OSU and a cardiovascular physiologist, to join him in a small unit of five research scientists. My background had been in brain/stress regulation; there was also a microbiologist, an exercise physiologist, a metabolism and a biological rhythm scientist. Very little was known about what happens to humans in space; our observations from one flight to the next slowly enabled us to form a picture of what might be happening, but progress was gradual. We had to find a way to at least simulate the effects of space flight on the ground and facilitate research that would complement and help us understand what the consequences of living in the microgravity of space might be.
Eventually, the optimal model adopted by the space science research community as a means for studying the physiological changes occurring in weightlessness during spaceflight was 6˚ Head Down Bed Rest (HDBR) or variations of this. In essence, by lying down continuously, the maximum influence of the force of gravity pulling down on us, Gz (head-to-toe), is minimised to Gx (across the chest). It was from such studies in healthy volunteers that I first noticed the similarity in changes seen in astronauts in space to those of people ageing on Earth. Muscle and bone wasting, reduced blood volume, a type of anemia, fluid and electrolyte shifts, cardiovascular deficits, and reduced aerobic capacity alterations in space all resulted on return to Earth in the astronauts experiencing fainting, and disturbed balance and coordination. These changes are also known to be the underlying causes of falls in the elderly. However, this conclusion was met with disbelief, including my own, since healthy young astronauts and HDBR volunteers recovered soon after returning to Earth or on becoming ambulatory. As knowledge accumulated and the duration of space missions grew longer, it has become clear that both the physiological response to spending time in space, as well as the ageing process on Earth, are gravity-dependent conditions.
Recovery from 6-month stays in space confirm that recovery is difficult, slower or impossible. Though bone density, for instance, may recover its density, its architecture is more like that of an older person and not likely to recover. The rate of change of bone in space is also faster than found on Earth, with around 1% loss of bone density a year on Earth, whereas in space this loss is more like 1% a week or month.
On Earth, gravity has been considered the enemy that drags us down and ages us. But the reverse is true. From birth, from the buoyancy of the womb through peak development, children intuitively learn from the beginning to use gravity in the design and function of their body. They do this by moving and orienting themselves in as many ways as possible, exposing all parts of their body to this universal stimulus. Skeletal, neuro-muscular and cardiovascular stimuli are below threshold in the microgravity of space, which results in a 10-times faster onset of atrophy. On return to Earth functional capacity is equally reduced 10-times faster than in ageing. There are comparable underlying metabolic and morphological disturbances where decreased mechano-transduction is a common factor. As more advances are emerging from the science of ageing, such as the discovery of telomeres, it has become possible to compare these with those in space. Though gravity is ever-present on Earth, it is useless if we do not use it.
Deconditioning in space from gravity deprivation, and reduced gravity influence in bed rest, have drawn attention to the medical hazards of gravity withdrawal in other gravity-related conditions, such as sedentary office work and other ageing lifestyles. Today’s prolonged hours of uninterrupted sitting in both these cases have been linked to atrophic, inflammatory and metabolic conditions, from cancer, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular changes and ageing. The answer simply lies in relearning to use gravity, much as a child does when playing – moving from dawn to dusk, incorporating multiple changes in posture with intermittent, low intensity, high frequency movement.
Gravity clearly plays a role from cradle to grave. Understanding that role may, in fact, provide sought-after simple and inexpensive solutions to a broad variety of today’s common disorders, all the way to achieving greater independence and longevity.
"The body electric" as Walt Whitman eloquently described the human physique in the full flush of health almost 100 years ago (Forbes, April 2, 1921) "is attainable by all. It is a matter of living sanely, according to the dictates of common sense."
Manned exploration of Mars is really only a matter of time, and some even say it is a necessity that we step foot on Martian soil. Stephen Hawking declared at a lecture in 2008 "If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before", while SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk confirmed his belief that "Humans need to be a multiplanet species" in an interview with website Slate in 2015. Currently there are two operational and mobile US Mars rovers exploring the surface of the planet, Opportunity landed successfully in 2004 and Curiosity in 2012, so there is already much we know about the surface and landscape of the Red Planet.
What awaits any visitors to Mars is a very hostile and harsh environment; its atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than Earth's and is 95% carbon dioxide; temperatures can range from -125°C near the poles in winter to +20°C at midday near the equator; and the surface is covered in a layer of dust containing very fine-grained silicate minerals that tend to stick to surfaces and could be hazardous if breathed in. So the question is how to prepare astronauts for what they are likely to confront on an inhospitable planet that lies at least 55 million kilometres away?
"An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching."
There is undoubtedly no landscape on Earth that can exactly match the harshness of the Mars conditions, however, we can get close, such as on Mauna Loa volcano, Hawaii where Hi-SEAS analogue missions take place, the Atacama desert in Peru/Chile with its Mars-like arid soils where only the most limited of bacteria can survive, and the Dhofar desert in Oman, where in February 2018 the AMADEE-18 Mars analogue will take place. The use of field research in an environment that mimics Mars conditions in some form is an excellent way of gaining experience, practicing for the 'real thing', but more importantly, understanding the advantages and limitations presented by remote science operations where access to and communications with a central control are subject to difficulties and delays.
AMADEE-18 is a simulation mission being conducted by the Austrian Space Forum under the leadership of Forum President Dr. Gernot Grömer, a global partner of InnovaSpace, and in partnership with the Sultanate of Oman. A four-week mission is planned in the Oman desert to serve as an analogue for future manned missions to Mars. This scenario will provide an excellent opportunity for the testing of equipment and procedures in simulated Mars conditions and has the added significance of human involvement, with 6 space-suited 'astronauts' being isolated from the world. Contact with a Mission Control centre in Austria will be possible, but will include a 10-minute signal delay in either direction, as would be the case on Mars.
The AMADEE-18 analogue is certain to receive much coverage as the mission gets underway, and has already featured in the mainstream media. The team at InnovaSpace will await the results produced by this mission with great interest. Whatever the findings are, the media coverage will undoubtedly attract the interest of the future generations of space explorers, perhaps stimulating and drawing them into the STEAM areas of education. Certainly the Austrian Space Forum has provided encouragement through the addition of an AMADEE-18 Junior Researchers Program, opened to students from Europe and Oman.
It is without doubt that Space has a cross-generational and universal appeal, and its beauty lies in it being a truly interdisciplinary area, something that can be used to unite different disciplines. Traditionally, this has often been difficult to achieve within a university context, where individual areas, such as biology, physics, computer science and engineering, follow their own parallel paths. However, learning can undoubtedly be maximised through the use of interdisciplinary teaching and research. The promotion of interdisciplinarity is the core concept of InnovaSpace, with the field of the Space Life Sciences being used as a tool to draw together different subject areas in an interaction that permits new knowledge construction and a deeper understanding of ideas, something that will be vital if Mars analogues are to be translated into the reality of a manned mission to the Red Planet.
Blog written by Mary Upritchard