More than 500 people have travelled into space to date and, while we know a little about how life without gravity affects our physical health, we know almost nothing about how it affects our minds.
So, my colleagues and I have been launching ourselves, rigs of equipment and our participants into zero gravity flight to perform experiments. Its a thrilling and sometimes extremely nauseating life, but its opening new windows into how we think and perceive differently in space. This is no doubt important if we want to colonise outer space.
Weightlessness is a key component of the spaceflight experience. Since the first space missions, however, its been clear weightlessness causes a variety of health issues particularly degrading muscle mass, causing disorientation and blurred vision.
This should not be surprising as all living organisms have evolved under the constant 1g of gravitational force. But we also need to find out how weightlessness influences our perception and behaviour. Without going to the International Space Station (ISS), the best way to do this is on a zero gravity flight. During these flights, a refitted Airbus A310 aircraft follows the trajectory of a parabola. This means it alternates between rises and descents, at a 45 angle of inclination.
Each parabola starts with a pull-up acceleration phase in which the gravitational load is double Earth gravity (hypergravity, 2g). This lasts about 20 seconds. The pilots then let the aircraft drop into free-fall. For the next 20 seconds, everything and everybody on board the aircraft is exposed to weightlessness (microgravity, 0g). Once the craft reaches a particular angle of tilt, the pilots perform a pull-out acceleration, in which gravity is again double. This is repeated up to 30 times and the entire flight lasts around three hours.
Doing science on these roller coaster parabolic flight manoeuvres is very challenging. There are severe constraints on time. Whatever the experiment requires, it has to be performed in about 20 seconds.
Because several experiments must go up together, space is also tight. So, forget the comfort of a lab. Instead, visualise a 1.5 x 1.5 metres allocated habitat in which your equipment, experimenters and participants all need to fit. You cant risk mistakes so each experimental step, even each movement, needs to be perfectly planned. These movements must also be perfectly synchronised with drops and lifts of the plane. Like a dance, we choreograph and rehearse in the days before lift off.
To me, the real challenge of doing science on a parabolic flight is dealing with motion sickness. It is not by chance that parabolic flights have earned the nickname Vomit Comet.
On Earth, we have a system in our inner ear that tells us the direction and amount of gravitational pull, relative to the position of our heads (the vestibular system). In weighlessness, the 1g pull we have experienced our whole lives disappears. The vestibular system can no longer function as it should, often leading to space motion sickness (which mimics a severe car motion sickness), nausea and vomiting.
Why embark on such an adventure? This is the ultimate frontier of understanding how the brain can adapt to new environments and demands in microgravity. On a practical level, understanding the brains response to weightlessness is necessary to ensure the success and safety of future manned space missions.
We have also been investigating the effect of gravity on the perception of our own body weight. So far research has looked largely at how society and culture affects body weight perception. And we know that body satisfaction, body image and risk for eating disorders play a role.
However, the true weight of our body like any other object on Earth depends on the pull of gravity. Because of this, we predicted the way we perceive our own body weight would also be dependent on the pull of gravity. We asked participants to estimate the weight of their hand and their head both in normal terrestrial gravity and during exposure to microgravity and hypergravity on a European Space Agency parabolic flight campaign at the German Aerospace Center (DLR Cologne).
We showed that alterations of gravity produced rapid changes in perceived weight: there was an increase in perceived weight during hypergravity, and a decrease during microgravity.
While this might seem obvious our actual weight changes accordingly its important, because perceptions of our body weight, shape and position are critical to successful movement and interactions with our surroundings. The fact that we are researching such basic things just goes to show how little we actually know about it. Imagine, for example, that you are an astronaut operating levers to control a robotic space arm. Misunderstanding the weight of your own arm could cause you to pull too hard, swinging the arm into the side of your spacecraft.
Ultimately, we aim to understand how the human brain builds a representation of gravity and uses it in cognition to guide behaviour. We have previously shown that gravity may influence how we make decisions, with a lack of it potentially making us more risk-averse. This sort of research has never been more timely and it yields advantages for enhancing human performance in upcoming space exploration.
We may have underestimated the effects of gravity on our cognition so far because gravity is so stable on Earth. It is arguably the most persistent sensory signal in the brain. I predict the next couple of decades will reveal a lot about how gravity has been affecting the way we think, feel and act without us even noticing.
In the meantime, I am enjoying the ride weightlessness is the best experience I have ever had. The pilots announce 3, 2, 1, INJECT, and there you are floating. There are no bodily constraints, just effortless movements and unpredicted movements of your limbs that lead to euphoria, excitement and enhanced awareness of your body. It is very hard to sum up experience I can only say its a feeling of awe and freedom.
- Commercial spaceflight advocate outlines revolution in the field - SpaceFlight Insider - July 10th, 2020
- NASA unveils new rules to protect the moon and Mars from Earth germs - Space.com - July 10th, 2020
- ISRO doesn't know when it will be ready to restart space launches - Business Insider India - July 10th, 2020
- Chinese scientists reveal analysis of weird substance found on the moon's far side by Yutu 2 rover - Space.com - July 10th, 2020
- Celebrating 60 years of Marshall Space Flight Center | Military Scene | theredstonerocket.com - Theredstonerocket - July 10th, 2020
- Fay 2020 Hurricane And Typhoon Updates - NASA - July 10th, 2020
- It's the month of Mars! 3 Red Planet missions set to launch in July - Space.com - July 10th, 2020
- Celebrating 60 years of Marshall Space Flight Center | Military Scene - Theredstonerocket - July 10th, 2020
- Firm to offer balloon rides from Alaska to the edge of space - WITI FOX 6 Milwaukee - July 10th, 2020
- Photos: SpaceX's first crewed mission launches from pad 39A - Spaceflight Now - June 12th, 2020
- Virtual reality will be a big part of Boeing's Starliner astronaut training - Space.com - June 12th, 2020
- Gaganyaan's first unmanned test flight won't be happening this year - Business Insider India - June 12th, 2020
- Staying Alive in Space - The Planetary Society - June 12th, 2020
- Back-to-back launches scheduled from Cape Canaveral this weekend - Spaceflight Now - May 15th, 2020
- Virgin Galactic job application looking to hire pilots for spaceflight - Business Insider - Business Insider - May 15th, 2020
- Curiosity mission team operates rover from home - SpaceFlight Insider - May 15th, 2020
- The X-37B Space Plane's Microwave Beam Experiment Is A Way Bigger Deal Than It Seems - The Drive - May 15th, 2020
- Salad seeds sent to outer space 'grew slightly slower when planted on Earth' - The Irish News - May 15th, 2020
- Pluto's wispy atmosphere may be surprisingly robust - Space.com - May 15th, 2020
- Hopeful for launch next year, NASA aims to resume SLS operations within weeks - Spaceflight Now - May 5th, 2020
- The UAE is going to Mars. Here's the plan for its Hope orbiter. - Space.com - May 5th, 2020
- Virgin Galactic readies space tourism trips with first Spaceport America flight - Digital Trends - May 5th, 2020
- UC Berkeley Lab to build NOAA space weather instrument - SpaceNews - May 5th, 2020
- Stay home, reflect and be part of something bigger: Sunita Williams to Indian students stuck in US - Economic Times - May 5th, 2020
- Soyuz launches from Kazakhstan with space station supply ship - Spaceflight Now - April 26th, 2020
- Long space flights can increase the volume of astronauts' brains - New Scientist News - April 26th, 2020
- How engineers are operating space missions from their homes - The Verge - April 26th, 2020
- A Brief History of Chimps in Space - Discover Magazine - April 26th, 2020
- Starlink satellites: When and how to see them flying over Nottinghamshire tonight - Nottinghamshire Live - April 26th, 2020
- UAE's Mars Hope Probe on its way amid Covid-19 pandemic - Khaleej Times - April 26th, 2020
- Visiting the Bottom of the Mariana Trench Sounds Pretty Appealing Right Now - Popular Mechanics - April 1st, 2020
- Welders wanted: SpaceX is hiring to ramp up production of stainless steel Starship - Space.com - April 1st, 2020
- When you can see the 'train' of Starlink satellites flying over Greater Manchester and the UK - Manchester Evening News - April 1st, 2020
- Launch of ExoMars rover delayed to 2022 Spaceflight Now - Spaceflight Now - March 13th, 2020
- NASA could have a timeline for Boeing's next Starliner flight by the end of the month - Space.com - March 13th, 2020
- A Solar System of Fire and Ice - The Atlantic - March 13th, 2020
- A new way to provide internet for the masses from space - Politico - March 13th, 2020
- 3D beating heart tissue experiment heads to Space Station - UW Medicine Newsroom - March 13th, 2020
- Watch how the only woman in space today celebrated International Women's Day - Space.com - March 13th, 2020
- The most innovative space companies of 2020 - Fast Company - March 13th, 2020
- Space mining could lead to string of human colonies on alien planets - The Sun - March 13th, 2020
- All Alone in Interstellar Space, Voyager 2 Is About to Lose Contact With Home - ScienceAlert - March 13th, 2020
- Kaboom! The Biggest Space Bloopers of 2019 - Space.com - December 27th, 2019
- 'I Can't Wait to Try It Out': Starliner's 1st Riders Welcome Capsule Back to Earth - Space.com - December 27th, 2019
- U.S. tests ways to sweep space clean of radiation after nuclear attack - Science Magazine - December 27th, 2019
- SpaceX Says A Step Closer to Launching Manned Space Mission - International Business Times - December 27th, 2019
- Christmas Eve at the Moon: Apollo 8's Historic Message Beamed to Earth Today in 1968 - Space.com - December 27th, 2019
- Hurricane season is over, but threats to Space Coast rocket launches are still out there - Florida Today - December 27th, 2019
- ULA gets the nod to launch GOES-T satellite - SpaceFlight Insider - December 27th, 2019
- 10 Things That Blasted Through Space in 2019 - Space.com - December 27th, 2019
- SpaceX poised to accelerate launch cadence with series of Starlink missions - Spaceflight Now - December 21st, 2019
- Human Spaceflight In 2020: What Lies Ahead - Forbes - December 21st, 2019
- Will commercial space flight be like Ad Astra? We went to a flight base to check it out - SYFY WIRE - December 21st, 2019
- Timeline of Soyuz launch with CSG 1 and CHEOPS - Spaceflight Now - December 21st, 2019
- Successful launch continues deployment of SpaceX's Starlink network - Spaceflight Now - November 11th, 2019
- What it takes to be a space pilot - Astronomy Magazine - November 11th, 2019
- Spaceflight alters heart cells but they quickly recover back on Earth - New Scientist News - November 11th, 2019
- 4 Things to Know About New Space Company Virgin Galactic - Motley Fool - November 11th, 2019
- Mercury is making a rare 'transit' across the sun. Here's how to watch. - NBCNews.com - November 11th, 2019
- Japanese 'Shooting-Star' Satellite to Launch on Landmark Rocket Lab Flight This Month - Space.com - November 11th, 2019
- The Importance of Spacecraft Abort Tests - Forbes - November 11th, 2019
- Buy Virgin Galactic stock because space tourism will be safer than you think, analyst says - CNBC - November 11th, 2019
- Now in space, a cutting-edge satellite the size of a shoebox, and UW students built it - Seattle Times - November 11th, 2019
- Human Heart Cells Transform in Space; Return to Normal on Earth: Study - The Weather Channel - November 11th, 2019
- NASA Marshall expands ties with UA to advance in-space manufacturing - Made In Alabama - November 11th, 2019
- Can We Genetically Engineer Humans to Survive Missions to Mars? - Space.com - November 11th, 2019
- NASA's SOFIA Observatory: The Flying Telescope - Space.com - November 11th, 2019
- Massive Space Explosion Releases as Much Energy in 20 Seconds as Sun Does in 10 Days - The Weather Channel - November 11th, 2019
- Airstream Enjoys Return to U.S. Space Program in Partnership with Boeing - Chief Executive Group - November 11th, 2019
- 'Star Trek,' Space Travel and Teleportation with Tig Notaro - Space.com - November 11th, 2019
- Space station receives spacewalking gear, new baking oven - Spaceflight Now - November 6th, 2019
- A Journey to Mars Starts on the Space Station - Space.com - November 6th, 2019
- Historic space flight artifacts donated by legendary cosmonaut displayed at space museum in Weatherford - KFOR Oklahoma City - November 6th, 2019
- Virgin Galactic: From Space To The Stock Market - Forbes - November 6th, 2019
- Virgin Galactic's high-risk space adventure will likely pay off - Space Daily - November 6th, 2019
- SAIC and Sinequa Align to Deliver an Intelligent Search Experience to NASA Marshall Space Flight Center SAIC and Sinequa Align to Deliver an... - November 6th, 2019
- Mars Society Founder Makes Case for 'Mars Direct' Path to the Red Planet - Space.com - November 6th, 2019
- Are there any realistic spaceflight technologies from Star Wars? - MIT Technology Review - November 6th, 2019
- Virgin Galactic Stock Finds Its First Fan on Wall Street - Motley Fool - November 6th, 2019
- NASA's Voyager Spacecraft May Have 5 Years Left to Explore Interstellar Space - Space.com - November 6th, 2019