Breakthrough Harvard Research Shows Artificial Gravity Can Enable Deep Space Exploration

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Bone and muscle data for mice gathered by researchers from the Harvard Medical School and the University of Rhode Island shows that it is possible to mitigate some of the effects of zero gravity. Muscular atrophy and loss of bone density are key concerns for space travelers, particularly those on long-duration missions. The research is one of the first of its kind to simulate the effects of artificial gravity on mice that were present on the International Space Station (ISS), with the mice exposed to different levels of gravity on the ISS.

Preliminary Research Shows Artificial Gravity Can Help Mitigate Muscle Problems Resulting From Spaceflight

While humans have been living and working on the International Space Station (ISS) for decades now, deeper space exploration has been constrained by both technology and the human body. To date, no spacecraft has been developed that can take humans to other planets, with the only outer space body that has seen a ‘visit’ from Earthly travelers being the Moon.

Since the lunar missions of the Apollo era, space exploration is now taking a new dimension in the 21st century. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Artemis program aims to be a stepping stone for solar system exploration, with the first steps calling for a presence on the Moon. Additionally, SpaceX’s Starship program – currently under development in Texas – aims to make flights to Mars regularly.

To make their Martian journey, future space travelers will have to deal with the harsh conditions of outer space. Humans have evolved to live on Earth, and some constraints for deep space exploration include the harsh radiation present just outside Earth and prolonged exposure to zero gravity.

Zero gravity affects the human muscles, bone mass, and other areas. On this front, fresh data gathered by researchers at the Harvard Medical School and the University of Rhode Island shows that it might be possible to mitigate some of these effects.

The research involved exposing 12-week-old adult mice to zero gravity, 0.33G, 0.67G or 1G in centrifuges during a 30-day mission on the ISS. At the same time, 12 mice were also placed in similar conditions on Earth. When the research period was over, the mice’s body weight and bone grip strength were measured. Then, they were euthanized and dissected to evaluate their muscles.

One of the most affected bones in the human body from zero gravity conditions is the femur bone. This is a weight-bearing bone and the pull of gravity on a human body lends the bone strength. Today’s research shows that for mice femur bones, artificial gravity similar to Mars’ gravity (0.33 simulated vs 0.38 actual) the simulated gravity led to an increase in femur bone mineral density (BMD).

Additionally, the percentage loss of lean muscle mass was the lowest for the test subjects in 0.33G, and according to the research’s abstract, the wet mass of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles was higher for the 0.33G mice than those exposed to zero gravity. The gastrocnemius muscle is the leg tricep part of the calf and the soleus muscle also covers the upper region of the calf. Like the femur bones, these are also weight-bearing muscles.

The researchers use this data to conclude that it is possible that exposure to artificial gravity through a centrifuge can help lessen the effects of artificial gravity on muscles. Whether the same will apply to humans remains to be investigated.

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