A team of engineers from MIT may have brought us one step closer to keeping astronauts strong and healthy in space. They've created a centrifuge that will allow individuals to exercise whilst simulating Earth's gravity.
Currently, astronauts aboard the International Space Station attempt to mitigate bone and muscle loss during their time in space by undertaking a time-consuming and rigorous exercise regime. However, exercising in space is not all that effective, and an astronaut can still expect to lose a significant amount of their overall bone mass for every month spent in low-Earth orbit.
Research is being carried out on a worldwide scale to combat the detrimental effects of microgravity, and some studies are yielding results. One such project pioneered by researchers from King's College London and MIT would see astronauts don a skin-tight bodysuit. It would to some extent mimic the effects of Earth's gravity, by utilizing vertical strips of a lightweight elastic material to create a pressure-loading system the equivalent of 1 G.
Without the development of such preventative technologies, it is possible that over the course of a manned mission to Mars (expected to last around three years), an astronaut's muscle, bone and cardiovascular system could degrade to the extent that it would simply cease to function properly.
The new MIT study's centrifuge takes the form of a metal cage, which a seated astronaut would cause to spin rapidly, thus generating the centrifugal force required to mimic Earth's nurturing gravity. While in the centrifuge, the astronaut would pedal a cycle ergometer while being monitored by a plethora of sensors designed to measure heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate alongside a number of other vital signs.
The equipment is small enough to squeeze into a standard ISS module, or possibly onto a future manned spacecraft headed for Mars. The compact centrifuge was tested on 12 healthy human subjects, over three artificial gravity levels – zero G, 1 G and finally 1.4 G, which saw the centrifuge spin at 32 rpm. It was discovered that the participants only experienced significant discomfort while the equipment was coming up to speed, or slowing down.
It was observed that by simulating Earth's gravity during exercise, more force was required to pedal the cycle ergometer and that this corresponded with an increase in the participant's cardiovascular function. The team believe that by pairing artificial gravity with active exercise, astronauts can stave off some of the worst effects of microgravity even on long-duration missions.
The results of the experiments have been published in the journal Acta Astronautica.