A joint European Space Agency (ESA) - University of Bath project has been launched that aims to inform ESA’s operational experts who develop and implement exercise countermeasures for astronauts.
ESA has a long-term interest in human missions to the Moon, both to explore the surface itself and as an operational testbed for future planetary explorations to Mars and beyond. To date, however, very little is known about the physiological and biomechanical effects of life in low gravity and whether Lunar (0.16G) and Martian (0.38G) gravity is sufficient to maintain the long-term integrity of important physiological systems, such as muscles, bones, cardiovascular system.
The ESA and University of Bath co-funded PhD, which will for the first time will use computer simulations as well as anti-gravity devices, aims to estimate the forces experienced internally by lower limbs when the body is subject to different gravity environments. Specifically, it will map the variation in external loads, muscle strength and the reduced gravity effect to see how these interact when it comes to different forms of human locomotion.
The work has wider potential and a terrestrial spin-in, too. This includes improving and refining rehabilitation programmes for those, for example, recovering after a sustained period of bed rest following surgery.
James Cowburn from the University’s Department for Health, whose PhD is funded by the programme explains: “I hope that through this PhD we can inform rehabilitation to a higher standard both for those who are recovering from a sustained period of bed rest and/or orthopaedic injuries. This is a particularly exciting project to be involved in, with the potential for really significant impact in the years to come.”
Dr Salo added: “Anti-gravity devices are used by endurance runners and people in rehabilitation after lower limb injuries. We need to understand better how much strain can be reduced by these devices and what rate the load can be increased during the rehabilitation.
“We hope that this is the first step towards a closer and long-term research relationship between ESA and the University of Bath on this area, which can be expanded to advise how the human body reacts to low gravity if and when astronauts go back on the moon.”
The project is part of a wider ESA Network / Partnering Initiative (NPI) which aims to foster closer interactions between the ESA and European universities, research institutes and industry for research on advanced technologies with potential space applications.
Future human spaceflight
University alumnus and Medical Project Team Lead within the Space Medicine Office of the European Astronaut Centre at the ESA, Dr Jon Scott, added: “To better understand the effects of the space environment on human physiology and the challenges that ESA astronauts are likely to face during future exploration missions, we are actively engaging with academic institutions from across ESA’s Member States.
“We are very pleased to have established this joint project with the University of Bath and to have access to the world-class expertise contained within its Department for Health. We look forward to a productive co-operation with the University and are confident that the findings generated by the project will make a significant contribution to both terrestrial rehabilitation and human spaceflight knowledge”.
This project is carried out under a programme of and funded by the European Space Agency and University of Bath. The view expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Space Agency.