News | Monday, 24th October 2011

Could humans fly to Mars?

Study holds key to exploration of planets

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Could humans fly to Mars?

A SCIENTIFIC study at Manchester Metropolitan University could hold the key to the viability of a manned space flight to Mars.

Scientists suspect that the toll on the human body of a 15-month round trip could jeopardise any potential manned mission to the Red Planet.

Now, intervention by physiologists at the Institute for Human Movement (IRM) could help astronauts develop coping mechanisms against the draining effects of weightlessness.

Led by Marco Narici, IRM Director and Professor in Physiology of Ageing, the Sarcolab Project conducted its first tests on astronaut Andre Kuipers, who flies into orbit to the International Space Station in December and will return to Earth in May 2012.

Houston tests

They will conduct tests on another nine astronauts to understand why weightlessness makes muscles intrinsically weaker.

Professor Narici said: “In spaceflight humans lose muscle and bone, we do not know why the loss of force exceeds that of muscle size.

“Neither do we understand why intensive strength training exercise effective in increasing muscle force and size on Earth, fails to do so in space.

“The record for a sojourn in space is 483 days – the approximate duration of a round-trip to Mars – and it is clear that more effective countermeasures against muscle and force loss should be identified before undertaking this mission.”

First study of kind

Marco and Dr Oliver Seynnes put Kuipers through a battery of tests on muscle strength and structure using ultrasound and MRI, and measured motor control reflex, hormones and voluntary neuromuscular activity at the German Space Agency in Cologne. They will repeat the test in Houston, Texas one day after he arrives back on Earth.

This is the first time astronauts have been tested this way and the first time any team has investigated the cause of loss of force in space.

Professor Narici added: “We hope our findings will be useful to help mitigate muscle wasting and weakness under weightlessness, and to speed up recovery.

“We hope this may lead to new methods of devising more effective countermeasures to muscle wasting in space.”

Professor Narici has been collaborating with astronaut performance research year for nearly 20 years and flew a project on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1996.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Gerry Kellher said: “This is tremendously exciting research which shows this University’s scientists making an impact on a global stage. I congratulate Marco and his team. It will be fascinating to follow progress on this research with the European Space Agency, which could be key to the future of manned space exploration.”

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