NASA’s Mark Vande Hei recently returned to Earth from the International Space Station (ISS) after spending a record 355 days in space. Like others before him, he had to be carried out of the Russian Soyuz capsule as a precaution. That is because when astronauts and cosmonauts experience a lack of gravity in space for a prolonged period their muscles are weaker.
On Earth, humans experience a similar process in old age.
Professor Malcolm Jackson, from the University of Liverpool, explained exclusively to Science Digest why the MicroAge team wants to know if there is a correlation between the two.
He said: “The situation in space, where we lose muscle is actually simpler than what happens in ageing.
“On Earth, of course, lots of things happen – people become less mobile, they have nutrition issues and their joints become inflexible.
“In space, we know that we are all exposed to microgravity, so what we are looking for is a parallel change which we see on Earth.
“The muscles of older people are very complex, but there will be at least one component of that which is also reproduced in space.”
On December 21, A SpaceX rocket blasted off from Florida with more than 70 human muscle samples to study the impact of microgravity on their functions.
The successful experiment, which cost £1.2million, returned in January 2022.
Now the real work beings for Prof Jackson and his team attempt to identify similarities and “try to find ways to interfere in that process”.
WATCH THE FULL INTERVIEW ON THE SCIENCE DIGEST YOUTUBE CHANNEL HERE.
On the ISS, astronauts complete at least two hours of exercise a day to combat the effects of microgravity on these.
The team’s results could have implications both on Earth – and for future generations looking to colonise the cosmos.
Prof Jackson added: “There’s a Government challenge that we should be looking for five years more of extra healthy life for older people.
“That’s one thing we are trying to address – it’s likely that it’s not just a muscle problem, although muscles are incredibly important at maintaining everyday mobility.
“It may well be that there are other parallels between what’s going on in space and what occurs in other tissues.
“So the astronauts lose bone mass as well – so we might even identify things about other aspects of ageing.”
The muscle cells that were sent to the ISS are as small as a grain of rice, and each has been packed into 24 3D-printed holders.
Once they got to the space station, they were unpacked by German astronaut Matthias Maurer.
During their time on the space station they were electrically stimulated to induce contractions in the tissue, and the scientists will look closely to see what happens.
Then, they were frozen and sent back to the University of Liverpool.
The results of their experiment will be revealed in the coming weeks.