ESA Director General Jan Wörner and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to take Europe to the Moon.
When humans return to the Moon they’ll have formidable challenge lying in wait: lunar dust. The talcum-like lunar regolith is considered the biggest operational problem facing Moon colonists. Within a few days of dust exposure, Apollo spacesuits suffered obscured visors, clogged mechanisms and eroded suit layers. So an ESA team is looking into novel material options to serve as the basis of future spacesuits or protect rovers or fixed infrastructure.
A human endothelial cell that was flown to the International Space Station and returned to Earth for analysis is helping researchers keep astronauts healthy in space.
Endothelial cells line our blood vessels and help contract and expand the vessels as needed and so are instrumental in maintaining pressure and a healthy body.
The Endothelial Cells experiment flew to the International Space Station in 2015 to understand how the cells react to weightlessness.
Blood flow changes in space because gravity no longer pulls blood towards astronauts’ feet. By understanding the underlying adaptive mechanisms of how our bodies respond to weightlessness, the experiment aims to develop methods to help astronauts in space while showing possibilities for people on Earth – our endothelial cells become less effective with age – to live longer and healthier lives.
Cultured human endothelial cells were grown in space in ESA’s Kubik incubator for one week and then ‘frozen’ chemically for analysis back on Earth.
As expected, the cells started to express genes differently to cells that stayed on Earth, attaching and moving differently while in space. After careful comparison in the lab, researchers have published a paper with first results confirming that the cells suffer stress from spaceflight.
Importantly, the research is showing how the cells adapt to the stress and provides clues as to how we could help endothelial cells to stay healthy in space and in patients on Earth.
For the curious, the image shows human capillary endothelial cells HMEC-1, red: b-catenin, blue: nuclei, using a Fluorescence Zeiss PALM MicroBeam Microscope at 63x magnification.
Image: Hidden science
ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet provides baseline data measurements for the Time experiment at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, USA ahead of his Alpha mission to the International Space Station in 2021.
This European experiment on the International Space Station investigates the hypothesis that time subjectively speeds up in microgravity and was first run in space in 2017.
Whether an activity takes seconds or hours depends on your point of view. For astronauts living off-planet and experiencing roughly 16 sunrises and sunsets a day, the concept of time is even more warped. If astronauts float through space, do they also cruise through an altered sense of time?
Since perceptions of time and space are believed to share the same neural processes, and research on depth perception in weightlessness has shown that astronauts often underestimate distance, scientists speculate that for astronauts time also flies in space.
In this image, Thomas is providing pre-flight data for the experiment, wearing a virtual reality headset to block external visual cues that could influence results. While wearing this headset, astronauts are tasked with gauging how long a visual target appears before them and their reaction times to these prompts are recorded to process speed and attention.
The astronauts run the experiment before flight, on the International Space Station and again when they land to compare results.
Scientists are not only collecting data on the neurological mechanisms at work here. The relativity of time, after all, implies that it is all in your head. As much as we can objectively measure and plot time, how individual humans perceive it is not just neurological but also psychological.
This is an important factor to life both on and off Earth.
As home-like as the Space Station tries to be for its astronaut inhabitants, it still lacks many of the comforts that we know on Earth. Naturally, this can affect mental health and in turn astronauts’ cognitive abilities. Being alert and focused in space is crucial to safety. An astronaut misjudging time can delay reaction and risk the safety and success of crews and missions.
Understanding the neurological and psychological triggers that warp our sense of time means countermeasures can be developed to calibrate our mental clocks.
Bringing these countermeasures down to Earth could improve the lives of those who suffer from isolation or confinement, something of particular relevance during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Check out this infographic for more on the Time experiment.