Scientists from NASA and two U.S. universities are using a 20-G centrifuge machine that can simulate up to 20 times the terrestrial gravity to evaluate the effects of hypergravity on humans. This 58-foot diameter centrifuge has three cabins, one for humans -- limited to 12.5 G -- and two for objects and flying hardware. The goal of these experiments is to reduce the adverse effects that space travel can have on astronauts' physical heath. But by studying the health benefits of exercise on astronauts, the researchers also hope to help the rapidly growing senior population who, like astronauts, doesn't exercise much. Read more...
This machine is located at the Center for Gravitational Biology Research at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, and is used by researchers from the University of Kentucky in Lexington and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Below is a picture of the 58-foot diameter centrifuge (Credit: NASA). "Mounted on the machine are three enclosed cabs (7.6 ft x 5.9 ft x 6.8 ft). One cab, mounted at one end of the rotating arm, contains a modified jet fighter seat in which a human sits during tests. A second cab, at the other end of the rotating arm, is often used for non-human subjects. This cab contains a swing frame and can be configured to meet an investigator's needs." Here is a link to a larger version of this 20-G centrifuge.
So what kind of research can be done with this centrifuge?
Research conducted using the 20-G centrifuge helps scientists understand how astronauts cope with long-term exposure to the low gravity of space or other planets and readjust to Earth's gravity, when they return home.
The research is expected to help determine what combinations of exercise and exposure to increased gravity effectively counters the changes that occur during space travel.
"While in space, astronauts experience heart and blood vessel changes, decreased bone strength, loss of muscle mass, and shifts in fluids within their bodies," said Ames' exercise physiologist and study scientist Fritz Moore.
Below is a picture showing a human subject inside a cab of the centrifuge (Credit: NASA). And here is a link to a larger version of this image.
This research effort also might be important for the general public.
"The knowledge we gain here helps us understand everyday health issues such as high or low blood pressure." Moore said. "The changes that astronauts experience are very similar to those seen in people who are less active or frequently confined to bed rest, such as individuals in our rapidly growing senior population. It is very likely that space medicine and geriatric medicine will interact and help us understand the best ways to arrive home from space, as well as the best ways to grow old."
This research is extremely interesting but still puzzles me. When astronauts are in space, they're living in an environment with artificial low gravity, not several times the gravity on Earth. So why this study? Am I missing something?
Sources: NASA Ames Research Center news release, April 19, 2006; and various web sites
You'll find related stories by following the links below.