Researchers from King's College London, working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have produced a skinsuit which, if worn by astronauts in outer space, could counteract the degradation of bone and muscle mass during long term exposure to microgravity.

The gravity loading countermeasure skinsuit is a collaborative project with researchers from King's College London (KCL), working on a design provided by MIT with help from the European Space Agency (ESA). The goal of the project is to provide a more efficient method of maintaining bone and muscle mass during long term missions in space, aboard for example the International Space Station (ISS).

Having evolved under the pressure of Earth's gravity, human beings are not naturally suited to life in space, therefore upon reaching the ISS an astronaut's body attempts to adapt to the weightlessness of its new environment. There is no longer any need for the added strength required to move about on the Earth's surface and so the muscle and bone in the body begin to degrade due to atrophy, with the average astronaut losing roughly one to two per cent of bone mass per month in orbit.

Furthermore, free from the pressure of gravity the spine begins to decompress and elongate causing prolonged periods of pain. Astronauts have been known to grow by 7 cm (2.8 in) during their time aboard the ISS, creating the potential for serious health complications for the crew upon return to Earth. As well as having to exercise their muscles rigorously to cope with the increased gravity, the process of the elongated spine settling to its normal state of compression increases the risk of suffering a slipped disk.

"Here on Earth we are constantly resisting gravity, meaning that even by sitting and walking around we’re exercising our muscles and bones," said Phil Carvil, of KCL's Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences. "In space the loading effect of gravity is removed and as a consequence, astronauts’ bones and muscles aren’t getting the natural forces they need to keep them healthy."

Currently, an ISS astronaut is required to undertake a grueling regiment of exercise lasting two and a half hours each day to try to mitigate the detriment inflicted on their bodies by life in space. As well as being very tough on the astronauts, it is also extremely time consuming, preventing the astronaut's from accomplishing other more vital activities.

It is hoped that the gravity loading countermeasure skinsuit will provide a more efficient way of protecting an astronaut's body over long periods in space. The suit utilizes horizontal strips of a lightweight elastic material. The effect of this is to create a pressure loading system that simulates an additional 1 g-force in body weight, essentially mimicking the effects of the Earth's gravity in space.

Research such as this is vital if mankind is to have any permanent presence in space, and greatly improves the chances of success regarding any potential mission to Mars. However there are also potential applications for the suit closer to home.

The researchers from KCL believe that the suit could be used to help reduce bone and muscle loss due to old age. "The space environment provides ideal conditions for studying aging because of the acceleration of muscle and bone wastage in space," said Carvil. "At King’s we’re conducting further tests to examine the practicality of wearing the skinsuit both in space and here on Earth as well as investigating further terrestrial applications."

KCL, alongside the ESA, is now looking to test the suit in space with astronaut Andreas Mogenson slated to try out the prototype during his time aboard the ISS starting early 2015. If the test yields positive results it will then be utilized by Tim Peake on his mission later that year.

Source: King's College London