What does an astronaut in the few months before flying to the International Space Station? Answer: baseline data collection.
Don’t let the wording fool you. This is an essential step before flight, when researchers collect information they will compare with data taken during and after flight.
Here, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst is providing data for the Grasp experiment using a virtual reality headset.
The focus of this experiment is on how a brain combines the perception of its body with visual information to coordinate hand movement. Researchers suspect that, on Earth, the brain uses gravity as a reference. When reaching for an object, the brain will calculate how far your hand is by using visual clues as well as how shoulder muscles counteract the downward force of gravity to keep your arm straight.
To understand how an astronaut’s brain copes with weightlessness, Alexander is reaching for virtual objects so researchers can determine how important gravity is compared to the other factors.
The sensation of floating for months on end is something our brains never had to deal with until last century and seeing how they adapt offers interesting clues to their workings.
Virtual reality headsets offer a way to present specific situations and understand how an astronaut brain adapts to its new environment – so France’s CNES space agency had one sent to the International Space Station.
The research will help us to identify the workings of the vestibular system that keeps our balance, and how it connects to the other sensory organs. In other words, Grasp is researching the physiology behind eye–hand coordination as well as shedding light on how to treat patients showing a loss of vestibular function on Earth.
For astronauts, the research will be useful during spacewalks, where coordination in weightlessness with few visual clues is of utmost importance.