New Year’s Science in Space – For a Healthier Life

ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer in the seven-window dome. Photo credit: NASA / ESA – M. Maurer

Another year goes by, and our muscles, bones, eyes and ears deteriorate as we age – even more so in space. Reactions in the body of ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer after almost two months on the International Space Station ISS are giving European scientists tips on how to combat the downsides of aging on earth.

Vision and hearing loss

About 70% of astronauts experience changes in the optic nerve during an extended stay in space, a phenomenon known as Space-Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome (SANS). This visual impairment is also considered to be the second most common risk to human health during a mission Mars.

Matthias and his NASA Crew members Thomas Marshburn and Raja Chari lent their eyes to the retinal diagnostics experiment. A special eyepiece lens attached to the back of a tablet enabled the astronauts to take pictures of their eyes and send them to Earth.

Training in retinal diagnostics

Irish national trainer Eóin Tuohy has his retina mapped by ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer during training for retinal diagnostics at ESA’s European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany. Eóin is part of the team behind the technology demonstration and helped adapt an ocular lens used for routine clinical diagnostics for use with a tablet in space. Matthias and his NASA colleague Raja Chari (left) are two of the first astronauts to test the technology in orbit. Images of her retina taken during space travel are used to train an artificial intelligence (AI) model. If all goes well, this model is used to automatically detect changes in astronauts’ optic nerve known as Space-Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome (SANS). Photo credit: ESA / NASA

These images are used to train an AI model that can detect eye changes and automatically make a diagnosis. The device will not only support astronauts in space exploration, but also enable sustainable health care on our planet.

The International Space Station is anything but a quiet place. Creaking noises, humming fans and constant conferences with ground control are among the sounds that fill Matthias’ life in space. The acoustic diagnostics experiment examines the effects of background noise in the station on the astronauts’ hearing.

Weak muscles

Matthias’ muscles weaken in orbit, similar to how they get older. He’s helping a team of medical professionals around the world find out how muscle mass is lost and how to prevent it.

After receiving a new science shipment from the SpaceX Dragon vehicle Just in time for Christmas, Matthias sorted synthetic muscle cells the size of a grain of rice in the cubic minilab. Some of these cells are electrically stimulated to trigger contractions in weightlessness, while others experience artificial gravity through centrifugation.

Researchers in the MicroAge project will observe how the tissue reacts to microgravity and accelerated aging processes. This could one day help people to maintain their strength and flexibility better into old age.

Another experiment on muscle health is myotons. Matthias used a non-invasive, portable device on the space station to monitor the tone, stiffness, and elasticity of certain leg muscles. He is one of 12 astronauts participating in this study to identify the best countermeasures for many people suffering from muscle strain.

ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer eats Saarland potato soup

ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer eats creamy potato soup that the Saarland cook Christian Heinsdorf developed for Matthiass Mission Cosmic Kiss. Matthias shared this special meal from his home region with his Expedition 66 crew colleagues in orbit with specially developed spoons as part of an investigation into the antimicrobial properties of laser-structured surfaces. Photo credit: ESA / NASA

Matthias also tries to optimize his fitness in space, an exercise program that lasts about two hours a day. During several training sessions with the treadmill and squats, he put on a wearable electromuscular stimulation suit (EMS), which activated his muscles. EasyMotion research aims to better understand the physiological stress experienced by astronauts and could lead to new rehabilitation treatments on Earth.

Maintaining body fat and muscle mass also depends on diet. Matthias constantly records his meals to track his energy intake and assess his diet. The NutrISS study presents a new approach to calibrate diet and exercise for longer stays in space. Science teams on Earth hope that a carefully balanced high-protein diet could limit the typical loss of bones and muscles caused by weightlessness.

Space fever and cosmic dreams

It is known that body temperature is higher in space. This “space fever” poses a potential risk to the health of the astronauts. The thermo-mini-experiment recorded Matthias’ core body temperature and circadian rhythm with a tiny thermal sensor attached to his forehead for almost 40 hours in three sessions.

Matthias Maurer and Thermo Mini Experiment

It is known that body temperature is higher in space. This “space fever” poses a potential risk to the health of the astronauts. The thermo-mini-experiment recorded Matthias’ core body temperature and circadian rhythm with a tiny thermal sensor attached to his forehead for almost 40 hours in three sessions. The data will help understand this phenomenon and prove that this little device could be used in hospitals and by people who work in extreme environments on earth, such as miners or firefighters. Photo credit: ESA / NASA

The data will help understand this phenomenon and prove that this little device could be used in hospitals and by people who work in extreme environments on earth, such as miners or firefighters.

When it comes to recovery, sleep plays a huge role in human health and wellbeing. Too little sleep or sleep disorders can increase the risk of illness and affect people’s performance.

Crew quarters in Columbus

CASA, short for Crew Alternate Sleep Accommodation, is the new place for European astronauts to sleep and relax in the Columbus laboratory. Photo credits: ESA – M. Bricklayer

Matthias wore a headband while sleeping for the Dreams experiment.

The device provides information about the various phases of sleep and sleep efficiency. This easy-to-use technology could help astronauts and people on earth improve their sleep routines and identify potential disruptions.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *