The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA are collaborating on a new experiment that seeks to understand the effects of long-term weightlessness and artificial gravity on the human body. However, this experiment won’t take place in space. Two-dozen brave volunteers will lie down and remain there. Lying around may not seem particularly brave, but the study participants have to stay in bed without sitting up for 60 days and occasionally go for a spin in a giant centrifuge.
Humans evolved on Earth, and our bodies expect gravity. Scientists have long used bed rest to study the effects of weightlessness without sending people into space. Lying around in bed all day causes similar metabolic changes as being in orbit like muscle atrophy and bone loss. That’s why astronauts have to stick to adhere to a strict regimen of exercise that simulates the strain of Earth gravity.
In the new study, the 12 male and 12 female volunteers will take to beds at the German Aerospace Center’s Envihab facility. The participants have to remain stretched out on their beds for the full 60-day study. They can’t sit up and must keep at least one shoulder touching the mattress at all times. As if that wasn’t enough, the bed is tilted down 6 degrees at the head end, causing blood to pool in the head. Just thinking about that makes me want to stretch my legs.
While artificial gravity doesn’t exist yet, there are some only marginally outlandish ways to accomplish that. For example, astronauts could live and work in rotating compartments that use centrifugal force to simulate gravity. To test the effects of such a system, researchers will occasionally pop the test subjects into the Envihab’s short-arm centrifuge (above). The spinning will push blood back down into the extremities, but again, there’s no standing or even sitting up allowed.
Throughout the test, scientists will conduct tests on the subjects’ cognitive abilities, muscle strength, balance, and cardiovascular function. Even after the end of the 60-day bed rest experiment, the volunteers will remain in the German Aerospace Center for additional monitor and testing to track how they recover from the effects of 60 days flat on their backs. The data should help NASA and the ESA better prepare for the effects of long-term weightlessness and the potential for artificial gravity on astronauts.