ESA’s interest in how astronauts react to living in weightlessness and how to keep fit without the benefit of gravity took a step forward today with the opening of the new ‘Envihab’ in Cologne, Germany. The facility will be the envy of scientists all over the world who specialise in the human body.
One way of studying astronauts’ space responses on Earth is to subject volunteers to prolonged stays in bed, with their feet slightly up. The German Aerospace Center has built Envihab from the ground up to host bedrest studies and to answer as many questions as possible about the human body.
Aside from state-of-the-art monitoring equipment such as MRI scanners, the building offers scientists complete control of the volunteer’s environment. At the flick of a switch, scientists can change the type of lighting, the air pressure and even the amount of oxygen the volunteers breath during their stay.
The building has a centrifuge that can put volunteers under hypergravity, producing up to 12 times the normal force of gravity. Exercise bicycles and other machines can be installed in the centrifuge to test techniques for keeping fit in space.
The centrifuge even has a robotic arm that can monitor the volunteer’s arteries via ultrasound – the first in its kind.
Will humans perform better and stay fit if they are subjected to tinted blue light or live under reduced air pressure? What type of exercise is best for preserving bone strength? The possibilities for examinations are endless and the answers are important for spacecraft designers and mission controllers, as well as for architects and hospital staff.
“No other facility in the world has all the equipment that Envihab offers to scientists in a single place,” says Rupert Gerzer, director of the centre’s institute of aerospace medicine.
“The goal is to answer as many questions we have on the human body as possible.”
The first bedrest study to be conducted at Envihab is planned for 2014.