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New Canadian research on the health of astronauts in space

David Saint-Jacques and Bio-Monitor

Credit: Canadian Space Agency/NASA

As we celebrate 20 years of continuous human presence aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Canada's space science community is pursuing its mission to improve the life of humans, on Earth and in space, with new research aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The Bio-Monitor is a wearable Canadian technology that consists of a smart shirt, a head band and a dedicated tablet application. It was designed to help keep an eye on astronauts' health by continuously monitoring and recording their vital signs while they are in space.

With this technology available onboard the Station, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is funding two new Canadian studies to help mitigate health risks for future space travellers and contribute to the well-being of people on Earth.

Researcher and institution Study topic

Dr. Andrew Blaber, Simon Fraser University

The team will observe astronauts as they exercise before, during and after spaceflight. They will investigate how the cardiovascular and respiratory systems interact with the blood pressure control system, using measurements taken by the Bio-Monitor. Tracking that interaction will reveal changes caused by weightlessness in space, which could help ensure astronaut health and fitness.

Dr. Carolyn P. McGregor, Ontario Tech University

The team will acquire new knowledge on health risks associated with the spaceflight environment. They will study the use of the Bio-Monitor to support real-time data acquisition and transmission. They will also test extensions to the Artemis computing platform to demonstrate its potential for autonomous health monitoring.

These studies are the latest additions to the Canadian science already underway on the ISS. They were selected from proposals submitted to the CSA in . As with other research supported by the CSA, the studies will lead to a better understanding of human spaceflight risks while also contributing to health benefits here on Earth.

Canadian science headed to International Space Station on SpaceX Dragon

Canadian science headed to ISS

Credit: NASA

On , SpaceX's Dragon cargo ship will launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Two days later, the Dragon vehicle will dock to the International Space Station (ISS) autonomously, delivering vital supplies to Station crew.

Among its cargo, the uncrewed ship will transport Canadian science equipment to the ISS, including:

  • Three Bio-Monitor smart shirts and headbands
  • Refurbishments for glucose test kits

The gear will be used for ongoing Canadian study Vascular Aging, which takes a closer look at issues known to pose risks to astronauts' health, like radiation and insulin resistance, a precursor of Type 2 diabetes.

In its unpressurized trunk, Dragon will also carry a pair of roll-out solar arrays, flexible solar panels that will be mounted on some of the Station's existing arrays to augment the ISS's power supply. Once Canadarm2 extracts the payload, astronauts will perform spacewalks later in to install the new hardware.

On its cruise back to Earth about a month later, Dragon will return samples for Vascular Aging and the final samples for Vascular Echo, which wrapped up on-orbit data collection in .

Live coverage of Dragon's launch will be available on NASA TV on , beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET. Rendezvous and docking will also be broadcast on June 5, starting at 3:30 a.m. ET (docking scheduled for 5:00 a.m. ET).

Lucky strike: Canadarm2 stays the course after an orbital debris hit

Canadarm2 after an orbital debris

Credit: NASA/Canadian Space Agency

Space can be a harsh and unforgiving environment for the robots and humans that explore it: the hazards are many, from massive temperature swings to radiation and orbital debris.

Over 23,000 objects the size of a softball or larger are tracked 24/7 to detect potential collisions with satellites and the International Space Station (ISS). A number of tiny objects—ranging from rock or dust particles to flecks of paint from satellites—are also too small to be monitored.

The threat of collisions is taken very seriously. NASA has a long-standing set of guidelines to ensure the safety of Station crew. The safety of astronauts on board the orbiting laboratory remains the top priority of all Station partners.

While the utmost precautions are taken to reduce the potential for collisions with the ISS, impacts with tiny objects do occur. One such hit was noticed recently during a routine inspection of Canadarm2 on .

Experts from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA worked together to take detailed images of the area and assess the impact, which occurred on one of Canadarm2's boom segments.

Despite the impact, results of the ongoing analysis indicate that the arm's performance remains unaffected. The damage is limited to a small section of the arm boom and thermal blanket. A hole approximately 5mm in diameter is visible.

Canadarm2 is continuing to conduct its planned operations, including hoisting Dextre into position to replace a faulty power switchbox (Remote Power Control Module).

NASA and the CSA will continue to gather data to conclude the analysis. Near-term robotics operations will continue as planned.

Canadarm2 and Dextre unlock new level of autonomy

Canadarm2 and Dextre unlock new level of autonomy

Credit: NASA

Having recently celebrated 20 years on the International Space Station (ISS), Canada's iconic robotic arm is getting another boost in autonomy.

Originally designed to be controlled by astronauts in space, Canadarm2 was quickly adapted for ground control in its early years. A joint CSA-NASA team of robotics flight controllers now carefully plan and execute most manoeuvres of Canada's space robots from Houston and Saint-Hubert, Quebec.

Last week, Dextre and Canadarm2 teamed up to test out a new capability made possible by a recent expansion to autonomy software known as MAC, or the Mobile Servicing System Application Computer.

Dextre used the cameras in its Latching End Effector to take snapshots of grapple fixtures – the Station's robotics anchor points – and the pair were autonomously aligned from various distances. These apparently simple operations usually require ground controllers to perform the alignment.

A day later, Canadarm2 repeated the target practice session without Dextre, using images captured by its cameras to analyze and then close the gap between its Latching End Effector and a Station grapple point. The 17-metre-long robotic arm successfully identified its target, calculated the required movements, and executed them.

This latest phase of autonomous operations succeeded thanks to CSA and MDA engineers who have expanded MAC software to include this "look and move" capability. A previous phase allowed Canadarm2 and Dextre to perform their first-ever autonomous operations on the exterior of the orbiting lab. This latest vision testing activity provided important data that will help engineers fine-tune the system and enable increasingly autonomous robotics operations on the Station in the future.

Adding autonomy to Canada's ISS robots helps lay the groundwork for Canadarm3, Canada's contribution to the Lunar Gateway. The next-generation robotics system, powered by advances in artificial intelligence, will perform many of its tasks around the Moon autonomously.

New study to help understand physical changes that astronauts experience in space and the impacts of inactivity

YouTube video - Understanding the health impacts of inactivity

YouTube video - Understanding the health impacts of inactivity. (Credit: Canadian Institutes of Health Research)

Space is hard on the body. In fact, microgravity has such a strong impact on the human body that a parallel can be drawn between astronauts in space and people who lead a sedentary lifestyle on Earth. That is why the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is collaborating with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Canadian Frailty Network (CFN) in a new study on the health impacts of inactivity.

The study will explore preventive methods that could help decrease astronauts' health risks associated with space missions and prevent age-associated health conditions on Earth. The participants, aged 55 to 65, will be bedridden for 14 days while tilted head down at a six-degree angle. Half of them will do 60 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) per day, combined with lower intensity aerobic and resistive exercises. The other half will receive daily physiotherapy. By comparing the two groups, scientists will better understand how HIIT might mitigate the adverse effects of inactivity on older adults and astronauts, and how it might accelerate the recovery of functional mobility. Data collection will start in at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal with eight teams of researchers.

This research is increasingly relevant as we prepare to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars, where they will be at higher risk of adverse health effects. Studying the human body in space for six months gives us data that would take years to gather on Earth. New information gained in space contributes to improved quality of life on Earth. By studying how astronauts adapt to microgravity, scientists can advance our knowledge on ageing, cardiovascular problems, osteoporosis, and even the psychological effects of isolation.

The partnership behind the study

The CSA is responsible for the study's experimental facility, including recruiting participants, medically supervising the participants, and acquiring the standard measures. CIHR and CFN are funding eight scientific teams, which will conduct in-depth analysis of the effects of the countermeasure.

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