Top Story, Devices & Diagnostics

Exercise combined with artificial gravity may be the answer to astronaut health problems

MIT engineers are tinkering with exercise equipment and centrifuges to come up with the best way to lower the amount of muscle deterioration for long term residents of the International Space Station .

So many things about space and space travel are a mystery, but one thing definitely isn’t: the lack of gravity leads to serious muscle atrophy, bone loss and balance problems in astronauts. Even though Astronauts on the International Space Station, or ISS, have exercise options to strengthen their muscles like exercise bikes and weightlifting machines, they still suffer from muscle deterioration.

This problem has led researchers to investigate the universe of artificial gravity, or exposure to strong centrifugal forces that let space-goers experience the effects of gravity in space.

MIT engineers looked into this technology and built, “a human centrifuge with an exercise component: a cycle ergometer that a person can pedal as the centrifuge spins,” according to a release from MIT News. The centrifuge is designed to perfectly fit inside a module of the International Space Station, and since it has both a muscle strengthening and artificial gravity component, it is designed to keep the astronaut’s strength in better condition than just exercise equipment alone.

MIT isn’t the only one to experiment with this technology though. United Space Structures is looking to replace the entire ISS as a whole with a new mushroom looking space station. The station rotates four times a minute, with the stem-like part and top rotating in opposite directions, creating artificial gravity.

CEO and Founder of United Space Structures William Kemp told Forbes, “If we want to stay in space longer than a year we’re going to have to have artificial gravity systems or else we’re going to sacrifice people in the process.”

MIT’s centrifuge design is more compact and spins from 28 to 32 revolutions per minute, while Kemp’s 30 meter diameter cylindrical centrifuge requires a spin rate of 5.98 rpm. He said a spin rate faster than that for his size design would be uncomfortable for astronauts.

One advantage that the ISS’s centrifuge has over Kemp’s design is that it can be used by everyone in the ISS while Kemp’s 30-meter design would only be able to house less than 30 people, making it more beneficial for a close to Earth asteroid mining deep space operation.

Kemp’s design is estimated to take about 30 years to create, so to speed that process up he told Forbes, “We are talking to companies like Deep Space Industries that want to mine asteroids and other companies that want to mine the moon. We would like to use Space X’s launch platforms, but it’s all going to boil down to costs which is why we will initially use composite materials for the structure instead of metals.”

Laurence Young, Apollo Program Professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics explained, “For the first time, we’re showing there’s a symbiosis when one combines the best aspects of exercise, and the best aspects of artificial gravity.”

Photo: MIT

Photo (featured): NASA Goddard Space Flight