November 4, 2010

Gravity Suit Could Help Limit Bone Loss In Astronauts

Researchers at MIT have unveiled a new, skin-tight spacesuit that mimics the effects of Earth's gravity and could help prevent the loss of bone mass in astronauts, according to a new study scheduled for publication in the journal Acta Astronautica.

Previous research has illustrated that astronauts lose between one and two percent of their body's bone mass per month while in outer space. While conditioning exercises are used to try and stave off this bone loss, it has remained a roadblock to long-distance, long-term space missions.

According to Laurie J. Schmidt of Popular Science, a NASA-sponsored study, conducted from 2001 to 2004, showed that International Space Station (ISS) crew members could lose as much as 2.7 percent of interior bone material and 1.7 percent of their hipbone structure each month.

Those findings raise definite concerns regarding the potential of fractures occurring following the most mundane tasks during a planned future mission to Mars. The MIT researchers hope that their invention, the Gravity Loading Countermeasure Suit, is the answer.

In a November 1 article discussing the suit, Wired.com's Olivia Solon reports that the skin-tight catsuit "wouldn't look out of place in a superhero comic."

She says that the suit includes stirrups which hook over the feet, and it designed to stretch over the body and pull the astronaut's shoulders downward to simulate the effects of gravity. "The aim is to make sure the legs experience greater force than the torso, just as they do on Earth," notes Solon.

"The prototype suit testing took place on parabolic flights that created brief periods of weightlessness. Results showed that the suit successfully imitated the pull of gravity on the torso and thighs, but it did not exert enough force on the lower legs," said Schmidt. "Researchers are now refining the suit's design to address this; they also plan to test the suit to see how it performs when worn overnight."

"Volunteers who wore the suit on the test flights reported that the suit was comfortable and did not significantly restrict movement, which means crewmembers can work and exercise while wearing the suit," the Popular Science reporter added.

According to Dava Newman of the MIT's Man Vehicle Laboratory, the team behind the development of the Gravity Loading Countermeasure Suit, the next step is to get the suits tested during an actual space mission. As she told BBC News on Wednesday, "There should be opportunities to get these things tested; it'll be interesting to see what the crew members think and if they see a benefit or find it too restrictive."


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