If you were given the chance to spend a year in space, would you?
That’s what NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko have signed on for. They will float aboard the International Space Station this Friday, March 27 not to return until March of 2016.
On one hand, they will be the first to live on the ISS for a full year — and performing somersaults in a weightless environment while watching Earth spin through space sounds pretty glamorous.
But on the other hand, these long-term space dwellers will potentially experience some rather unpleasant physical affects. These include a loss of bone and muscle mass, impaired vision, weakened immune system, and increased flow of bodily fluid to the brain, to name just a few. And that’s just what we know will happen in the first six months.
To better understand why some astronauts adjust to space better than others, as well as study what happens to the body beyond six months is why NASA’s one-year experiment is so important.
“We know a lot about [the first] six months but we know almost nothing about what happens between 6 and 12 months in space,” NASA chief scientist for the orbiting laboratory, Julie Robinson, said during an interview uploaded to the NASA YouTube January 15.
Kelly and Kornienko could develop never-before-seen or much-worse-than-expected adverse health affects during the latter half of their stay.
Still think they’re the lucky ones?
Lucky or not, their one-year mission as a science lab experiment is a crucial pioneering effort to help mankind plan a crewed mission to Mars, which will take as long as 30 months, according to this NASA video.
“Even though it’s only two crew members, it really gives us our first glimpse at what happens from 6 to 12 months and what risks are there that we don’t know about today,” Robinson said in the interview. “And then that will help us both to design future research and also to identify those risks. And then to define the future one-year expeditions that we may need to do to make sure those risks have been taken care of and we’re ready to go to Mars.”
The most complicated ISS experiment
One of the coolest things about space is also the most detrimental to our health: weightlessness.
Without gravity, the flow of fluid in our bodies reverses direction from down to the feet to up toward the chest and head, like in the GIF below:
This shift in direction leads to all sorts of complications like a puffy face, shrinking leg mass, and in some cases impaired vision. Scientists like Robinson also suspect it could affect other parts of the body, like on cardiovascular health, which is why Robinson and her colleagues have designed the most complicated experiment ever done on the ISS, she said.
Kelly and Kornienko will be strapped to a device that will use pressure to literally suck the fluids in their body down toward their legs, temporarily acting like gravity on Earth. Scientists on board the ISS will then use ultrasound and other instruments to study what affect this has on the astronauts’ blood vessels, Robinson explained.
“This is going to be a really novel investigation and give us some insights we’ve never had before into the overall fluid shift and eye impact problem,” Robinson said during the interview.
Moreover, Kelly and Kronienko will be completing a number of other experiments that will monitor not only changes in their physical health but their mental health, as well. What’s the point in going to Mars if the confined isolation has stolen your sanity by the time you get there?
Each man will, for example, keep a journal that will give some insight into their emotional and psychological states throughout the year. For a list of all seven experiments Kelly and Kronkienko will complete, check out NASA’s one-year-mission website.
Kelly will also be a key participant in another experiment, the NASA Twin study. Kelly’s twin brother, Mark Kelly, will stay on Earth serving as a control subject for scientists to learn how space radiation, like cosmic rays, might be causing astronauts on the ISS to age pre-maturely.
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