A novel technique developed by the Microgravity Centre, Brazil, could allow astronauts aboard the ISS to measure the effect that prolonged exposure to microgravity can have on human lung capacity. Research like this is a vital stepping stone to understanding the safety measures needed to keep astronauts alive and healthy on a long journey, such as NASA's planned mission to Mars.

Having evolved under the strain of Earth's gravity, it is to be expected that the human body would suffer in so radically different an environment as microgravity. However, thanks to modern science, we are beginning to combat some of the adversities that we have encountered in our race towards the stars.

Scientists have developed a skin suit designed to simulate the relentless pull of our planet's gravity, and advanced psychological experiments are taking place in the most unlikely places to determine how human beings will react to the psychological stress of a deep space voyage.

However, some complications that may arise from exposure to microgravity require frequent indepth analysis, of a type often difficult to administer without professional medical help and impossible to carry out in a microgravity environment. It is already known that around one to two percent of bone density is lost by an astronaut for each month in space, however less is known on the toll it takes on the respiratory system as the necessary tests cannot be carried out aboard the station.

The reason for this is that current testing procedures require a hypodermic needle to be inserted into an artery in order to draw blood for testing. This method is painful, invasive, not to mention annoying, and generally untenable on a space station where a sterile environment is one of the keys to survival (an environment which floating drops of blood would certainly not improve). Furthermore, the standard procedure requires administration by a medical professional.

An easier way

A new method developed by Thais Russomano, a professor and senior lecturer at King's College London, carries out the same function of measuring the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood in order to determine lung capacity, but does so in a much safer, more convenient way. Tentatively named The Earlobe Arterial Blood Collector (EABC) the key innovation is the method by which blood is extracted.

First, the lope of an ear is massaged with a special cream designed to draw arterial blood into the ear. Once this has taken place, the blood collector makes a small incision, automatically drawing blood from the scratch into a small cartridge. The cartridge then slots into a reader that analyzes the blood instantly, without the need for professional medical assistance.

The end result is a compact, efficient piece of medical apparatus that can be used by astronauts in orbit without contaminating their delicate living environment. However, the device is not restricted for use in space.

The convenience and speed at which it can produce an analysis of a patient's blood could be a boon to asthma sufferers back here on Earth, informing them in real time as to the severity of an attack.

EABC has already been tested in simulated space-like conditions at the Microgravity Centre, Brazil, where it was created, but is currently awaiting approval for the real deal, as NASA considers the device for use aboard the International Space Station.