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Ireland's role in keeping astronauts healthy in space

Two European Space Agency contracts were won by two Irish men in Dublin universities, to help them undertake research on ‘accelerated ageing’ and lack of exercise in space.

Astronauts like US native Dan Burbank could benefit from this research
Astronauts like US native Dan Burbank could benefit from this research
Image: Mikhail Metzel/AP/Press Association Images

TWO IRISH MEN have won contracts from the European Space Agency for research into helping astronauts deal with accelerated ageing and lack of exercise in space.

Dr Dónal O’Gorman of DCU and Dr Brian Caulfield of UCD received the contracts from the ESA totalling €135k.

Ireland’s membership of ESA is funded by the Irish Government and managed by Enterprise Ireland.

Minister for Research and Innovation, Seán Sherlock, congratulated the researchers and said it was “further evidence of the leading role Ireland plays in pushing the boundaries of biomedical research for the European Human Spaceflight programme”.

Astronauts can be in space for up to 18 months, explained Dr Bryan Rodgers of Enterprise Ireland, and they need to adapt to the specific challenges of life in space.

These include the absence of gravity, high levels of radiation and cramped living conditions – which often result in deterioration of the astronauts’ heart, muscle and bone condition.

The researchers’ work will help to address and find solutions for these issues.

ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang, who is also Head of Science & Applications Division in ESA’s Human Spaceflight & Operation Directorate, said:

Keeping in shape is always important, but working out in space is even more crucial in order to counteract the detrimental effects of weightlessness. We still have a lot to learn about how the body reacts in space and find the best methods to keep astronauts fit, also when returning to Earth.

Dr Dónal O’Gorman, Director of the Centre for Preventive Medicine at DCU, will use the ESA funding to investigate new ways to prevent the negative impact of micro-gravity on the body.

Dr O’Gorman is leading an ESA team to identify biomarkers to track changes during accelerated ageing and is investigating if artificial gravity or nutritional modifications can prevent the negative consequences

The best way to simulate microgravity on earth is to get people to lie in bed between 21-60 days.

Dr O’Gorman will simulate the effect of artificial gravity using a specialist human centrifuge in Toulouse, while in a separate study, he will investigate the impact of a nutritional countermeasure (whey protein and a salt) on changes in metabolism and skeletal muscle mass.

Both studies will help astronauts who go to space, but also have implications for healthcare on Earth, especially for the ageing process.

Dr Brian Caulfield is the Director of Technology Research for Independent Living Centre and Principal Investigator in CLARITY Centre at UCD and is currently leading the testing of the Neuromuscular Electrical Muscle Stimulation Exercise technology.

The technology, developed by Galway based Biomedical Research Ltd (BMR) works by stimulating the large muscles of the legs.

It offers a potential solution to the problem of how astronauts exercise aerobically in the confines of a spacecraft.

The parabolic flight campaign gives an opportunity to test this technology in a zero gravity environment, similar to the International Space Station

The ESA funding is provided through two programmes – ELIPS (European programme for life and physical sciences in space) and PRODEX (Programme de dévelopement d’expériences scientifiques).

In other space-related news, the National Space Centre in Midleton has signed a deal with Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (Fitztekh).

Under this deal, the NSC will track ‘space junk’, which can be very dangerous to ships in space.

The NSC will use its 32m antenna at Elfordtsown to track the debris.

Also working on this and other projects with Fitztekh will be University College Cork and Cork Institute of Technology, who will provide an exchange for students between colleges and install satellite stations to faciliate lectures and seminars by videoconference.

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