A Year in Space – A Human Research Project

Science, Space 2016-03-11

As you may have recently seen in the news, astronauts Scott Kelly (USA) and Mikhail Kornienko (Russia) safely arrived back on planet Earth after spending a year in space… well 340 days, but that’s still pretty impressive right? It is the longest single amount of time any astronauts have spent in space and Scott Kelly has now cumulatively been in space for longer than anyone else (522 days, in case you wanted to know).  The aim of them both staying in space for one year, twice as long as the standard mission, was to study the effect of extended space travel on the human body.

The research of the ‘One-Year Mission’ focuses on seven different project areas:

·      Functional
Monitoring changes in the performance of functional tasks after 12 months spent in low-gravity conditions.

·      Behavioural Health
Looking at the psychological effects of long-duration space flight through cognitive studies, neuromapping, sleep monitoring and analysis of journals.

·      Visual Impairment
Examining the ocular health of the astronauts. Looking at whether fluid shifts and changes to cranial pressure due to the low-gravity conditions affect sight.

·      Metabolic
Understanding the processes that convert food into energy and how they change in space.

·      Physical Performance
Focusing on the performance of bone, muscular and cardiovascular systems whilst exercising in a weightless environment.

·      Microbial
Looking at the micro-biome of the astronauts in the study.

·      Human Factors
How the astronauts interact with the environment on the space station.

 

Results from the study will be fed into the Human Research Program at NASA. However, we will have to wait a little while to see the results from all of these different research areas.

 

This study is considered incredibly important as part of the planning process for the missions to Mars. Scheduled to launch sometime in the 2030s, the missions to Mars will involve journeys (to and from) that could total to over 500 days spent in zero gravity conditions aboard a cramped spacecraft. Data collected from the study will go a long way in telling us what problems the human body could encounter during extended periods of spaceflight, however they will not provide the full picture. Astronauts that travel to Mars are likely to be subjected to even tougher conditions than those experienced by Scott and Mikhail on the ISS. Interplanetary travel will not only be longer, but will also be subjected to higher levels of radiation.

 

One other very interesting aspect of the mission is that Scott Kelly has an identical twin, Mark Kelly (also a former astronaut), who is being used as a control. NASA has spent the past year monitoring both Mark and Scott on Earth and in space respectively. The twin study has focused on four areas in particular:

 

·      Human PhysiologyFunctional
Looking at any changes in muscles and organs such as the heart and brain, brought on by spaceflight conditions.

·      Behavioural Health
The effect of spaceflight on decision making, perception, alertness and reasoning.

·      Microbiology/Microbiome
Exploring the dietary differences between the twins and how this affects their gut biomes.

·      Molecular/Omics
Looking at how factors like microgravity and radiation switch genes on and off and how this affects proteins and metabolites in blood, saliva, stool and urine samples.

 

Again, the results from these investigations will feed into the Human Research Program at NASA. All results from the research carried out on the twins and on Mikhail will be shared internationally,  allowing other space agencies to factor the research into future advances in space travel.

Whilst being monitored in space Scott and Mikhail both carried out standard engineering and maintenance tasks essential to keep the space station up and running. However, they also carried out lots of other experiments whilst on the station. This included growing the first vegetables and flowers in space, something that could be very important when it comes to long duration space travel.

Whilst Scott was away he took hundreds of photos of earth from the ISS and posted them on Twitter (@StationCDRKelly) under the hashtag #YearInSpace. Dave Mclean from Nova Scotia’s Centre of Geographic Sciences has made an interactive map of every photo Scott posted whilst on the ISS; if you have a bit of spare time there are some amazing photos to look at.

Scott Kelly in space

Just one of the many pictures that Scott Kelly took during his year in space. Taken from: http://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/scott-kelly-becomes-us-astronaut-to-spend-the-most-time-in-space.

This blog has just summarised some of the research that Scott and Mikhail have managed or been involved in on their ‘One-Year Mission’. I, for one, can’t wait to see what results come from the research and how this will impact on the future Mars missions.

Tweet me your thoughts on the ‘One-Year Mission’ and the future Mars Missions@JordanAtNotch.

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