Scientists Are Figuring Out How to Get Astronauts to Eat Their Own Poop


Space exploration is hungry work.

Taking food up to space is costly, and growing food in orbit is difficult and time-consuming, which is why scientists are looking at the possibility of converting astronaut poop back into something edible.

The thought may make you want to reach for the sick bag, but such a scheme could mean the difference between exploring the Universe or being stuck on Earth – we need to solve the problem of food on long-term space flights one way or another.

Now a team from Pennsylvania State University has come up with a way of using microbes to break down solid and liquid human waste very quickly, while minimising the chance of any pathogens developing. The substance that’s left could be used in space food.

“It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo’,” explains one of the researchers, geoscientist Christopher House.

Using industry standard artificial poop – yes, it exists – the scientists combined it with a select number of microbes in a cylindrical system about 1.22 metres (4 feet) long.

That prompts a process called anaerobic digestion, similar to the one found in our own guts. The original pile of waste gets broken down with no oxygen needed.

But it was the next step that really put the new research ahead of processes we already use: taking nutrients out of the broken down waste and using a microbial reactor to grow a kind of foodstuff out of them.

The methane produced during anaerobic digestion was fed to another microbe, Methylococcus capsulatus, a bacterium already used by the industry to produce supplements or biomass for animal feed.

With 52 percent protein and 36 percent fats, the biomass produced with the methane-gobbling M. capsulatus could provide plenty of nutritional value for astronauts.

To reduce the chances of harmful pathogens developing mid-conversion, the researchers also managed to grow other helpful microbes in alkaline and high temperature environments, where bacteria and viruses struggle to survive.

In fact, the whole system is a little like the compact filters you might find in a fish tank, removing fish waste from the water.

“We used materials from the commercial aquarium industry but adapted them for methane production,” says House.

“On the surface of the material are microbes that take solid waste from the stream and convert it to fatty acids, which are converted to methane gas by a different set of microbes on the same surface.”

During tests, the team removed 49-59 percent of solids in 13 hours, which is much faster than existing waste management systems. However, this isn’t a fully working product yet – just an experiment with different components in isolation.

More research will be needed to tweak the formulas being used and confirm this is actually something that can work in deep space. Meanwhile, other teams are working on ways to tackle the same problem.

For a long trip to somewhere like Mars, taking enough ready meals would take up too much space, and too much weight – more weight means more rocket fuel and more cost.

Growing food through hydroponics (soil-free farming) is an option, but it takes a long time to grow anything, and needs more energy to work, which again puts a strain on the limited resources of a spacecraft.

Ultimately, recycling the waste of our own bodies is likely to play at least some part in keeping astronauts well-fed on long journeys, and there’s already a pee recycling system on board the ISS. Food could be next.

“Imagine if someone were to fine-tune our system so that you could get 85 percent of the carbon and nitrogen back from waste into protein without having to use hydroponics or artificial light,” says House.

“That would be a fantastic development for deep space travel.”

Astronauts Can Get Hit by a Kind of ‘Space Fever’, Says New Research


When exposed to weightless conditions, astronauts can really pick up a temperature, new research reveals. This kind of ‘space fever’ comes on even when the body is at rest, and this strange finding is giving us more insight into how human beings cope outside of Earth’s orbit.

 

The temperature rises don’t come on instantly though – they develop over a period of months as the body adjusts to life in space without gravity, based on measurements taken before, during, and after trips to the International Space Station (ISS).

After two-and-a-half months, astronaut body temperatures regularly exceeded 40°C (104°F) during exercise, reports the team of scientists, and went 1°C above the normal level of around 37°C (98.6°F) even when the astronauts weren’t doing anything at all.

“We developed a new technology which combines a skin surface temperature sensor with a heat flux sensor, and which is capable of measuring even minor changes in arterial blood temperature,” explains one of the researchers, Hanns-Christian Gunga from the Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin clinic in Germany.

The study was part of an ongoing effort to study how we might cope with extended trips in space, but so far little research has been done into how weightlessness affects the core body temperature (CBT), something that’s very tightly regulated by our internal biological systems here on Earth.

Using the new ultra-sensitive sensors, which are placed on the forehead, the researchers got readings from 11 astronauts at various points during their time on board the ISS, starting 90 days before their first launch flight and ending 30 days after they got back.

On top of the general temperature rises, the results showed the human body’s CBT rising faster in microgravity than it does on Earth.

That’s likely because the space environment interferes with the key factors that regulate body temperature, including the heat we give off into our surrounding environment, and the amount of sweat we produce to cool down.

Sweat evaporates more slowly in space, for instance, which means overheating during exercise sessions on board the ISS becomes a potential problem.

“Under weightless conditions, our bodies find it extremely difficult to eliminate excess heat,” says Gunga. “The transfer of heat between the body and its environment becomes significantly more challenging in these conditions.”

This matters because regulating body temperature is crucial to our health and well-being – the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the US recommends that CBT shouldn’t exceed 38.0°C (100.4°F) for the average person involved in heavy work on a daily basis.

What we don’t want to see are problems like hyperthermia or heat stress while we’re all on our way to Mars, so more research is going to be required to see how extensive this ‘space fever’ is and how we can combat it.

Besides the implications for space travel, the research also highlights issues about how our bodies could evolve to safely adjust CBT, and might have done so in the past. Given enough time, we might be able to tweak our own CBT to fit in with life in space.

“Our results also raise questions about the evolution of our optimum core body temperature: how it has already adapted, and how it will continue to adapt to climate changes on Earth,” says Gunga.

Astronauts Very Politely Express Serious Doubt Over Trump’s Moon Plans


Former Apprentice star-turned-president Donald Trump has not been shy about his desire to play lunar overlord. In December, he signed “Space Policy Directive 1,” which commands NASA to facilitate getting humans to the moon and eventually, Mars. While Trump is eager to send a crewed mission to the moon under his presidency, astronauts who have actual scientific credentials and didn’t just star in a third-tier reality show say that’s probably not going to happen.

 

In an interview with Voice of America (VOA) on Wednesday, American astronauts aboard the International Space Station said that while a lunar mission sounds exciting, it’s going to be more challenging than “a lot of people” assume.

“Going back to the moon is a bigger project than a lot of people think,” ISS Expedition 54 flight engineer Scott Tingle told VOA via live stream.

Tingle expressed further skepticism about launching a crewed mission into lunar orbit by 2023.

“Just because we’ve done it before doesn’t mean we’re that close to doing it now,” he said in an interview with VOA’s Russian service. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of engineering to do, a lot of planning to do, a lot of operations to do, and it’s going to be expensive. It’s going to take a lot of manpower, and it’s going to take a lot of thinking outside the box to make it as quickly and efficiently as we can.”

Expedition 54 prime crew members flight engineer Norishige Kanai of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), right, Soyuz Commander Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos, center, and flight engineer Scott Tingle of NASA, right. (Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)

Time is running out for the International Space Station (ISS) program, which is expected to end in 2024. While a crewed return mission to the moon probably won’t take place under Trump’s presidency, the U.S. and Russia have already made plans to build a spaceport in lunar orbit called the Deep Space Gateway. This would hypothetically serve as a stepping stone for getting humans to Mars, and would remain in lunar orbit for a minimum of 10 years.

So while it makes sense to start thinking beyond the ISS, getting humans to the moon in the next four years isn’t realistic. The president will have to find other ways to fulfill his fantasy of serving as lunar CEO.

Astronauts may face long term brain damage as a result of prolonged space travel.


IN BRIEF
  • Astronauts who will travel to Mars may have a higher chance of developing dementia and long-term brain damage.
  • Despite this, NASA is optimistic in thinking it can resolve all the issues by the 2030s.

A DANGEROUS TRIP

NASA, SpaceX, Boeing, and many other parties from all over the world are dead set on reaching the next frontier of human spaceflight: Mars. In fact, NASA has started recruiting people who want to experience “The Martian” in real life.

But before you start begging NASA for a chance to go, you may want to consider this new finding. A team from UC Irvine has found that astronauts who will travel to Mars may have a higher chance of developing dementia and long-term brain damage.

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Scientific Reports/University of California, Irvine

To be fair, this news isn’t really much of a shocker. Astronauts who come from the ISS experience a whole host of bodily changes: reduced bone mass, damage to the central nervous system, sleep disturbance, even excessive flatulence. But scientists found that travel to Mars (which would involve a longer spaceflight than anybody has ever endured) could have a more disastrous effect on the brain and nervous system.

UCI’s Charles Limoli and colleagues saw that rats bombarded with charged particle irradiation had less dendrites and spines in their neurons. Moreover, they found that these effects persisted even six months after bombardment. The team also saw that the bombardment affected the “fear extinction” of the subjects. That means they couldn’t suppress memories of stressful and fearful situations.

That means astronauts would think less clearly when confronted with an emergency or problem in the voyage.

TECHNOLOGY AND BIOLOGY

UCI’s research just underscores the fact that developing the right technology isn’t the only thing we need to get us to the red planet. We also need to understand more about how our bodies perform in space, and consider ways to keep astronauts healthy and alert.

The good news is that this problem has been anticipated by the government, and NASA has been called to add to studies on human health in space. They’ll be taking a look at the top hazards for the three-year, round-trip Mars missions including cancer, cataracts, infertility, and even how extreme isolation could lead to psychological problems. No one wants cabin fever in space.

Despite all this, Inspector General Paul Martin pointed out that the space agency is optimistic in thinking it can resolve all the issues by the 2030s. They’ve definitely got a long list to tackle.

A New Theory on the Mysterious Condition Causing Astronauts to Lose Their Vision


But new research presented this week provides a partial answer to what’s causing this condition: pressurized spinal fluid. Noam Alperin, a researcher at the University of Miami’s Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute, presented findings from research he and his peers conducted on 16 astronauts, measuring the volume of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in their heads before and after spaceflight. CSF floats around the brain and spine, cushioning it and protecting your brain as you move, such as when you stand up after lying down.

Alperin and his team found that astronauts who had been in space for extended trips (about six months) had much higher build up of CSF in the socket around the eye than astronauts who had only gone on short stints (about two weeks). They also designed a new imaging technique to measure exactly how “flat” the astronauts eyeballs had become after extended periods in space.

The idea is that, without the assistance of gravity, the fluid isn’t pulled down and evenly distributed, allowing it to pool in the eye cavity and build up pressure, which slowly starts to warp the eye and cause the vision damage, called visual impairment intracranial pressure syndrome (VIIP). It’s likely some people are more predisposed to this than others, perhaps due to the shape of their skulls, which would explain why some astronauts have not experienced VIIP. But Alperin said his findings suggest anybody could get VIIP if they’re in space for a long enough period of time.

“We saw structural changes in the eye globe only in the long-duration group,” Alperin told me over the phone. “And these changes were associated with increased volumes of the CSF. Our conclusion was that the CSF was playing a major role in the formation of the problem.”

The results have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but Alperin told me the manuscript was recently accepted and will be published shortly. And these reported findings align with what scientists already suspected about the condition, according to Scott M. Smith, the manager of NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, who’s been studying the vision loss issue for the last six years.

“I think this fits very well within what others seem to be thinking at the moment,” Smith told me.

Many astronauts—though, importantly, not all—have experienced this unexplained reduction in eyesight after spending months on the International Space Station, some dropping from perfect 20/20 vision to 20/100 in just six months. Researchers have been gravely concerned about this effect. With plans to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, a mission that would require nine months of space flight one way, we don’t really want to risk all of our astronauts going blind in the process.

“NASA ranks human health risks and the two top risks are radiation and vision issues,” Smith said. “Is it number one or two? Some people would say it’s number one, because we don’t really know what the long-term implications are.”

But the better we understand how VIIP occurs, the more likely we are to be able to create a solution. Smith’s team is currently conducting a clinical trial to investigate whether polycystic ovarian syndrome—which, despite its name, may indeed occur in men—could have similar effects on vision. This research could help explain who is more likely to experience VIIP, as research like Alperin’s explores the physical functions of the condition.

What a solution to the condition will look like depends what else we learn: it could be a medication, or a mechanical device to help redistribute fluid, or something else entirely. But each piece to the puzzle helps us get one step closer to sending humans to Mars, and not blinding them in the process.

NASA’s released a prototype of the spacesuit astronauts will wear on Mars .


ICYMI, humans are going to Mars in the mid-2030s, and NASA is about to startrecruiting astronauts for the mission. But before it opens those floodgates, the US space agency has provided a little more insight into what those lucky future astronauts will be wearing when they touch down on the Red Planet for the first time.

NASA unveiled its first images of the Z-2 spacesuit advanced prototype last month, and it looks a lot more modern than the white extravehicular mobility unit suits we’re used to seeing on astronauts these days.

That’s because the Z-2 has been designed purely with one purpose in mind – to allow astronauts to explore a foreign planet. The suit won’t be worn during space walks or on board spacecraft, but will be used when humans reach Mars.

“The suit is designed for maximum astronaut productivity on a planetary surface – exploring, collecting samples, and maneuvering in and out of habitats and rovers,” NASA explained.

The suit is also made with adjustable shoulders and waste to allow a range of crew members to fit into just one suit. But despite that flexibility, the Z-2 is incredibly tough, and has a solid upper torso.

“The Z-2 uses advanced composites to achieve a light-weight, high-durability suit that can withstand long-duration missions in the harsh environments found on Mars,” said NASA.

The prototype has changed quite a bit since its origins. The Z-2 was originally chosen last year as part of a public poll, beating out two other designs to be the suit selected to go Mars.

Here’s what it looked like in the original drawings:

nasa-z2-original webNASA

And here’s what it looks like now from the front:

jsc2015e083483 altNASA

And the back:

jsc2015e083484 altNASA

As you can see, the design is still very Tron-inspired, with some cool electroluminescent wiring lighting it up.

And in case you were wondering what’s going on with that Etch A Sketch-looking thing on the back, that’s an entry hatch, which astronauts will use to climb into the garment – think of it more like a spacecraft with which they can explore the planet, rather than a suit.

But even though we now have a prototype built, it doesn’t mean the design is done and dusted.

This Z-2 suit will now be tested here on the ground before it’s tweaked further. But it won’t be going into space because it’s still in non-flight phase, as NASA explains. That means it’s not covered in the fancy materials required in space to block radiation and keep astronauts safe.

So for all you astronaut hopefuls out there, take a good luck at the Z-2. It could be your work uniform one day.

space-suit-z2-140430b-02

Out Of This World: What Happens To Your Body And Mind When You’re Floating Around In Space


We’ve come a long way since humans first set foot on the moon in 1969, when NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong described the event as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Recently, the Mars rover, known as Curiosity, photographed images of the mysterious planet, giving us a glimpse into another world; other rovers are on their way to planets further out, such as Pluto.

The next major leap would be a human setting foot on Mars. But first, astronauts have to figure out better ways to prevent or lessen the drastic changes the human body would go through during a year-long trip hurtling through space — getting farther away from Earth at every second — with no turning back.

astronaut

Currently, astronauts must go through intense training and exercise in order to prepare the body to be thrust into space. That’s because the human body has internal triggers of sorts that begin to cause changes once astronauts are floating about in zero gravity — from their blood flow to their skeletal frames.

Bones

“The human body is uniquely designed to live in Earth’s gravity,” the National Space Biomedical Research Institute writes. “In space, the body begins to adapt to the microgravity environment.”

The body adapts to different environments on Earth, so why would it be any different in space? One of the biggest changes occurs in the skeletal system. Astronauts who are in space for over a month can lose a significant amount of bone mass. This is because the skeleton is no longer needed to hold up our weight; in zero gravity, you float everywhere. This reduction in bearing weight leads to the breakdown of bones and the reabsorption of calcium in the body, which weakens bone mass. According to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, a postmenopausal woman with osteoporosis can lose up to 1 to 1.5 percent of bone mass per year, but an astronaut can lose that much in just one month.

“We don’t know what sensors in your body recognize that you’re weightless, or why we would even have those sensors,” Chris Hadfield, a retired Canadian astronaut who was the first Canadian to walk in space, told Joe Rogan during a radio interview. “But your body starts to shed your skeleton right away.”

At the same time, humans get a little bit taller in space. On Earth, discs between the vertebrae of the spinal column are somewhat compressed due to gravity — but in space, the discs expand, making the spine longer.

Muscles

As many of you who sit at a desk all day may know quite well, you lose your muscles if you don’t use them. People floating about in space have far less resistance to air, gravity, and various other environmental features like wind. Without walking, running, going upstairs, or even simply holding up your posture under the weight of gravity, your muscle mass would gradually begin decreasing just like your bones. This is why preceding a lengthy space excursion, astronauts are required to undergo some serious exercise training to build up their muscles. There are some in-space exercises that astronauts can work on too, but researchers are still developing good interventions to prevent muscle loss — such as nutritional supplements.

Heart & Blood Circulation

Gravity actually helps to distribute blood through our bodies, so when it’s no longer present, fluids begin to travel toward the upper parts of the body and head. This can lead to a feeling of congestion. And the heart does not have to work as hard in the microgravity environment, so this could gradually lead to a smaller heart.

Recovery after returning to Earth is a whole other road to travel down. “[W]hen you come home, it’s brutal building those things back up again,” Hadfield notes. It takes one year for your body to fully recover, he says, and it personally took him up to 4 months to be able to run again properly. “My body got osteoporosis, and it’s reversing osteoporosis using some internal stimulus that we don’t even understand,” he said during the radio interview. “So it makes a pretty good medical study for everybody.”

To view what happens to the body in space in more detail, check out NASA’s interactive piece here.

Psychological

Leaving Earth behind and knowing you’re one of the few humans in space can have quite the impact on your psyche. Astronauts experience a mix of fear, excitement, fascination, and anxiety as well as feelings of isolation or loneliness.

Some studies have been completed on long expeditions in Antarctica, since space travelers will have to cohabit with one another in a very small space for up to three years if on a Mars mission. Researchers discovered a surge of depression around the halfway point of these Antarctica trips, once crew members realized how much longer it would take to get back. In short, astronauts must be a very specific type of person — one who has an “elevated capacity to regulate stress, temporarily displace emotions, and filter out preoccupying thoughts” as well as be “highly resilient to environmental source of psychological distress including isolation, interrupted sleep cycles, the hyperarousal caused by excitement, intense work schedules, and the absence of day and night in space.”

Hadfield says there will most likely be a different type of profound impact on the psyches of the astronauts who will be the first to go to Mars — a sense of disconnection from all that is familiar:

It’s not so bad in the space station because we’re so close to the world. But as soon as you start going to Mars, within a couple weeks, you will never have another normal conversation with Earth. …Everything has so much lag that you’ll just have recorded video messages back and forth. So the [psychological] impact of that is going to be high. And the Earth will shrink to just another star in a couple weeks. … Those people will become Martians. … They will no longer be from Earth. … When I was on the space station the second time, one of the other crew members … in passing, a throwaway thing she didn’t even think she was saying, she said: ‘Hey you know, Earth said that we’re supposed to do this next.’ In my mind I heard, ‘Earth said.’ I heard those words come out of her mouth, and it was like, she has in her mind completely split off from the other seven billion people. There’s her crew, and Earth is one singular identifiable entity on the other side. And that was a real bell-ringer to me of what it’s going to be like to go to Mars. Those people are going to be a completely discreet unit of people and they’ll be Martians, they won’t be earthlings in their heads. How do we deal with that? How do we plan for that?

Returning to Earth after extended periods of time in space can lead to vast psychological and physical changes. Some astronauts who have returned after a life-changing experience in space have a better perspective on things, noting that they ultimately cared less about petty political battles, or personal self-centered thoughts. Instead, some focused more on helping others. As rocket pioneer Krafft A. Ehricke said, “Man’s mind and spirit grow with the space in which they are allowed to operate.”

What do ISS astronauts do with their dirty laundry?


Without washer and dryer, all International Space Station residents throw out their clothes after just a few weeks of use.

ISS_crew

It’s may sound very celeb-like, but astronauts aboard the ISS have no other choice: once their clothes—undies included, of course—are dirty, they shoot them into the Earth’s atmosphere, where they burn.

But this practice is quite expensive. According to Smithsonian, a crew of six goes through 408 kilograms of clothing every single year! And then there’s the stench – the crew has to keep their dirty garments until there’s enough to be ejected into space.

So, to put an end to this problem and free up storage space, researchers at NASA have developed long-lasting fibres that are easy-to-clean and germ resistant. And the first shipment left on Sunday. So for the next few weeks, ISS astronauts will be testing the new fabric.

Named the Intravehicual Activity Clothing Study (IVA Clothing Study), it replaces crew uniforms with non-cotton clothing that has to be worn during the astronauts’ daily two-and-a-half-hour exercise regime for a total of 15 days.

“The exercise clothing are hung up to dry for up to four hours and then stored in flame-resistant bags. A questionnaire is taken daily soon after exercise to document perception of the exercise clothing,” reports Shannon Palus over at Smithsonian.

Three crew members will also test a shirt that can be worn for daily activities. The volunteers will discard the shirt once they think it can’t be worn anymore, and then they will complete a questionnaire.

If the astronauts find these new clothes useful and the fabric manages to keep them fresh, we may soon see a new collection of space garments for ISS residents. And, with a bit of of luck, the fabric may also be used to create sportswear for those here on Earth – stink-free yoga wear? Yes, please.

Cosmic radiation can cause Alzheimer’s in astronauts.


http://m.indianexpress.com/news/%22cosmic-radiation-can-cause-alzheimers-in-astronauts-study%22/1052878/

Echocardiography on the Space Station.


How do you detect heart disease when you’re in space and the nearest cardiologist is 230 miles below? Cleveland Clinic’s James Thomas, MD, helped find a way.

There is no Cleveland Clinic in space. Yet. But today’s space travelers benefit from innovations led by Cleveland Clinic cardiologist James D. Thomas, MD. Back in 1997, Dr. Thomas received a grant from NASA to develop a digital echocardiology services for the International Space Station (ISS). He and his team developed the means to read echocardiograms from the space station, and today, ultrasound equipment is part of the medical monitoring gear on the ISS.

Echocardiography stands out as the only thing that is going to work in space,” Dr. Thomas told theHeart.org in 1999, “It doesn’t have radiation, it doesn’t have a magnet. It’s relatively low power and it’s light-weight.”

Today, he is studying the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the astronauts’ hearts. “About once a month we can monitor echocardiograms being performed up in space as they are broadcast live via the secure NASA science network,” says Dr. Thomas. “This is going to teach us a great deal about what happens to the heart in space, and may explain why the astronauts have problems with low blood pressure when they come back to earth or difficulties exerting themselves. This is critical information that we need so that we can develop countermeasures that can keep astronauts healthy as we extend our reach ever farther from earth, perhaps even to Mars in the next few decades.”

In addition to being a staff cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Thomas is also Lead Scientist for Ultrasound at NASA.

Watch Dr Thomas on youtube:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f58Z2EHwEMM&feature=player_embedded

Source: Cleveland Clinic.