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King's College London develops skinsuit to prevent muscle and bone loss in space

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March 18, 2014

King's College London students sporting the gravity loading countermeasure skinsuit (Photo...

King's College London students sporting the gravity loading countermeasure skinsuit (Photo: King's College London, CHAPS)

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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.

Astronaut Mike Hopkins setting up the COLBERT treadmill (Photo: NASA)

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 suit will be tested further in weightless conditions during a parabolic flight in Marc...

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

About the Author
Anthony Wood Anthony is a recent law school graduate who also has a degree in Ancient History, for some reason or another. Residing in the UK, Anthony has had a passion about anything space orientated from a young age and finds it baffling that we have yet to colonize the moon. When not writing he can be found watching American football and growing out his magnificent beard.   All articles by Anthony Wood
2 Comments

The gravity suit sound like a good idea, in theory, but has the suit been tested over a long duration in space; like the International Space Station? There is an acknowledgement that the lack of gravity has an adverse affect on bone loss and other physical and other problems. I always thought that there is a need to take with us the necessities of life; water, food, air, (a bathroom) and gravity. How do we design a craft that has centrifugal forces to create a sense of gravity. Has anyone done research on how to create artificial gravity?

Kristianna Thomas
22nd May, 2014 @ 08:54 am PDT

You could do a phase I trial here on earth right away. The purpose of a phase I trial is to see if the treatment kills the patient or not. The patient gets to decide if he/she wants to participate.

I'm nearly 70. I'd volunteer in a heartbeat to try a suit that might protect my bones and increase my muscle strength. Why wait for astronauts before testing it on old geezers like me?

HenryFarkas
26th May, 2014 @ 08:45 am PDT
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