Twelve people are about to embark on the world’s longest sleepover, all in the name of space research. The group will be confined to beds designed to mimic the rigors of space for 60 days straight. Some of the volunteers will also be testing strategies that can hopefully reduce the bodily strain caused by a lack of gravity, such as exercising while being spun around in a centrifuge.
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The research project is called the BRACE (Bed Rest with Artificial gravity and Cycling Exercise) study, and it is being funded by France’s space agency, the National Center for Space Studies (CNES). The study itself will be conducted at MEDES, the Institute for Space Medicine and Physiology in Toulouse, France.
Perhaps surprisingly, it doesn’t take much for a bed to become space-like. The volunteers will spend every waking and sleeping hour on a bed elevated 6 degrees below the horizontal, feet-side up, even while showering and using the toilet (as a cardinal rule, at least one shoulder will have to remain on the mattress no matter what). This forces blood and fluid to rush to the head and, coupled with the constant bedrest, will eventually cause a person’s muscles to atrophy—the same major problem seen with long-term space travel.
One group will act as a control, resting the entire time. Another group will regularly cycle on an exercise bike outfitted onto the space bed, following the typical routine that astronauts do to stave off muscle loss. And the third will cycle while inside a centrifuge machine. The spinning will ideally act as a counterbalance to the loss of gravity in space that’s being mimicked by the bed, and should hopefully improve the gains that would come from exercise.
“We hope to understand the added value of artificial gravity to the fitness routine astronauts follow on the International Space Station. The crew exercise two hours per day in orbit,” said researcher Angelique Van Ombergen, the lead for life sciences at the European Space Agency’s Human and Robotic Exploration branch, in a statement provided by the ESA.
This project isn’t the first time that scientists have used bedrest as a form of simulated space travel, but it is reportedly the first time in Europe that cycling will be incorporated into the experiments. Researchers in Slovenia at the Jožef Stefan Institute are set to conduct their own, similar study, which will test out the combination of artificial gravity and vibration exercises.
In the best-case scenario, the lessons learned from these studies won’t just apply to space travel.
“Results from space analogues can be useful to design better treatments for the elderly and for patients with musculoskeletal conditions and osteoporosis on Earth,” said Van Ombergen.