While a lot of the focus when it comes to space travel beyond Earth orbit is on the spacecraft, multiple studies are underway to explore the human side of what NASA calls “Moon to Mars Exploration.” Those studies include physical health, mental health, and even training astronauts to recognize geology that could answer many questions about our place in space.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is studying what rocks and minerals might be found on upcoming Artemis lunar missions, the German Space Agency (DLR) is looking at ways to improve blood flow during long-duration spaceflights by having people lay in bed, and NASA is studying what a year on Mars might do to a crew’s mental health.
Two ESA astronauts are spending a week exploring a Norwegian fjord as a way to identify rocks and minerals that could be found on the Moon. This is part of a program called PANGAEA, or the Planetary Analogue Geological and Astrobiological Exercise for Astronauts.
The program has been running since 2016 and involves a mix of classroom and field activities. This particular expedition brought ESA astronauts Alexander Gerst and Samantha Cristoforetti to a mountain that contains crystallized magma in Lofoten, located in the Arctic region of Norway.
The two astronauts are testing a specialized form of mapping using satellite multispectral images to plan their routes and find unique targets to study. Known as remote sensing geology, astronauts are using multiple satellites to find rocks and minerals that might otherwise be missed.
“Each rock reflects sunlight in its own unique way, giving away a unique fingerprint of the material it is made of,” said planetary geologist and PANGAEA instructor Riccardo Pozzobon. “This fingerprint can be detected by special types of satellite, revealing what is sometimes hidden in visible light.”
This technology will be implemented on the moon and will help scientists select future Artemis landing sites.
The reason the team is in this specific region of Norway is due to well-preserved samples on Earth of a rock abundant in the lunar highlands known as anorthosites.
While anorthosites can be hard to find on Earth since they are usually deep in the planet’s crust, they are spread everywhere on the Moon. The rocks are easy to see when the light hits them because anorthosites are made of crystals.
“Scouting this fjord is like walking on the lunar surface,” said planetary geologist and PANGAEA lead instructor Matteo Massironi. “The mountains resemble the molten ocean of the early Moon, when our natural satellite was a ball of fire with a melted surface on which rock-bergs of anorthosites were floating. We can see here what the lunar crust would look like.”
The team is taking inspiration from the later Apollo missions, in particular Apollo 15, 16, and 17, which produced the most science. In fact, Apollo 17 included Harrison Schmitt, the first – and so far only – geologist to walk on the Moon.
“When we land on the Moon, we have to be effective field scientists, the best ‘geological sensors’ one could be in never-before explored lunar environments,” said Gerst. “There are things that only human eyes can grasp.”
The astronauts will perform up to four field trips over the course of just a few days.
According to German researchers, more than half a liter of fluid rises into the upper half of the human body while in microgravity. On Earth, gravity normally helps pull those fluids to your lower extremities. Short-term side effects include having a puffy face as well as cold feet and a hot head.
However, the worry is the long-term side effects as the unusual fluid distribution causes changes in pressure. These can result in neurological effects that can affect an astronaut’s vision.
This is the basis behind DLR’s Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome Countermeasures (SAMS-CM) bed rest study being conducted on behalf of NASA. While bed rest studies have been ongoing since 1993, scientists are trying newer technologies and techniques to help combat the fluid shift.
This year, DLR is conducting four test campaigns – with the fourth wrapping up recently. Each consists of 12 volunteers spending a total of 60 days working on the experiment. This includes two weeks of preparation followed by 30 days completely in bed and two weeks of follow-up exams and rehabilitation.
The participants are confined to their bed which is tilted six degrees below the horizontal to best mimic how fluids would move inside the human body in microgravity. The participants are not allowed a pillow and must eat a specific diet with minimal choice in what they can eat.
The volunteers also have to perform daily tasks while still lying down including showering and going to the toilet.
One of the main pieces of technology being tested during these four rounds is the lower body negative pressure device (LBNP).
For two hours twice a day, the LBNP encapsulates participants from the waist down and applies a negative pressure of 25 mm Hg to draw blood toward the feet. The effectiveness is assessed through tests on aspects such as cardiovascular function, balance, muscle strength, and vision. Meanwhile, a control group would sit upright in a chair for three hours twice a day.
During the last two rounds of this most recent campaign, researchers tried a new technique. Each participant cycles for 45 minutes, all while still at the six-degree tilt, in an effort to get blood pumping to the legs. This is followed by venous occlusion, which uses pressure cuffs that squeeze the person’s legs for six hours at a pressure of 50 mm Hg in order to keep the blood from going back into the upper body.
“Both countermeasures, the lower body negative pressure chamber and cycling combined with thigh cuffs for a total of six hours daily, have never been done before, and it was unclear how well they would work,” said DLR scientist and professor Dominik Pesta. “Now we can say that it works very well, and it is well-received by the terrestrial space travelers.”
Researchers originally planned on having each person cycle alone with curtains separating them from other participants, but they found that using the machine together actually helped with mental well-being.
“It quickly became apparent that the interaction and friendly competition among them increased motivation and made cycling more enjoyable,” Pesta said.
To keep the participants entertained and engaged, they are allowed to do anything that can be done lying down including reading, watching TV, playing video games both online and offline, and talking to family.
A crew of four is currently spending a year on “Mars.” At least, that is the goal of the ongoing simulated mission.
The inaugural CHAPEA mission, or Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog, began on June 25th and is now fully underway according to a post from NASA on July 10.
The volunteers will spend 378 days inside a 3D-printed habitat known as Mars Dune Alpha, located at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. Participants will live and work within the 1,700 square feet (158 square meters) space which includes four private crew quarters, areas for crop growth, exercise equipment, a galley, and two bathrooms.
Mars Habitat Tour 📹
CHAPEA, or Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog, is @NASA's first one-year ground-based mission that will simulate living on @NASAMars. The crew will live and work in this 3D-printed, 1,700-square-foot habitat.
— NASA_SLS (@NASA_SLS) April 22, 2023
The CHAPEA-1 crew consists of commander and research assistant Kelly Haston, flight engineer and structural engineer Ross Brockwell, medical officer and emergency medicine doctor Nathan Jones, and science officer Anca Selariu, a microbiologist.
“It has been very special to be a part of such a tremendous group of scientists and specialists from a diverse set of backgrounds working together… [W]e are determined to produce the best possible data for the teams that have poured their hard work and spirit into this project and we hope to honor that effort with strong execution and completion of this mission,” said Haston.
Crew members will carry out different types of mission activities, including simulated spacewalks, robotic operations, habitat maintenance, personal hygiene, exercise, and crop growth. In an attempt to increase realism, the spacewalks will be conducted using a combination of virtual reality and augmented reality.
Researchers will also simulate the challenges of a human mission to Mars, including resource limitations, equipment failure, communication delays, and other environmental stressors.
“The simulation will allow us to collect cognitive and physical performance data to give us more insight into the potential impacts of long-duration missions to Mars on crew health and performance,” said Grace Douglas, CHAPEA principal investigator. “Ultimately, this information will help NASA make informed decisions to design and plan for a successful human mission to Mars.”
This crew will remain inside the habitat until July 7, 2024. NASA says a second crew will enter in 2025, followed by a third in 2026.
(Lead image: A render of Mars Dune Alpha on the red planet, the habitat currently in use on Earth for CHAPIA-1. Credit: ICON)