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ESA Upgrades Centrifuge to Study Health Effects of Weightlessness
ESA Upgrades Centrifuge to Study Health Effects of Weightlessness

The ESA-owned Short Arm Human Centrifuge, a machine that simulates hypergravity by spinning subjects in a container at high speeds, has been upgraded, installed and inaugurated at the Olympic Sport Centre Planica facility near Kranjska Gora, Slovenia. With the new technology, this recently enhanced clinical research center will help scientists study methods to counteract the negative physiological effects of microgravity in space.

Without gravity constantly pulling on the body, humans in space can experience bone and muscle deterioration from underuse. The centrifuge’s spinning produces artificial gravity, encouraging blood to flow back towards a subject’s feet and providing them with a force to push against while they follow a carefully controlled exercise regime of squats, jumps, heel raises and toe raises for 30 minutes per day.

The centrifuge contains four cells designed for one person each. Spinning at 35 revolutions of the 3 m arms per minute, riders may feel a force of gravity more than twice their own body weight at their centre of mass and more than four times their body weight at their feet.

With the recently installed centrifuge, the Planica facility will soon be home to ESA bedrest studies, now run by the Jozef Stefan Institute on behalf of the ESA. Prior research using the centrifuge has been conducted at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne. The Planica facility offers equipment to collect all ESA Bedrest Core Data, allowing for comparisons between different ESA-sponsored studies.  It can also be maintained under adjustable environmental conditions, such as a low-oxygen atmosphere, which is highly relevant for human exploration missions.

As the name suggests, volunteers in bedrest studies spend five to 60 days lying in bed, usually tilted backwards with their heads at 6° below the horizontal to induce blood flow toward the upper body. They are not permitted to stand up unless a research programme demands it and must perform all daily activities in bed – including eating, showers and exercise. As their bones and muscles atrophy, researchers will test different diet and exercise routines on them.

Currently, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) exercise for up to 2.5 hours per day, but a dose of artificial gravity may obviate the need for such lengthy workouts.

The results of these studies also benefit people on Earth. Many negative effects of living in space are similar to those experienced naturally as we age, such as osteoporosis, muscle loss and orthostatic intolerance.

ESA Upgrades Centrifuge to Study Health Effects of Weightlessness
Josef Aschbacher

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher signed the loan agreement for the centrifuge with representatives from the Jozef Stefan Institute during his tour of Slovenia last week. Slovenia has been an ESA Associate member since 2016 and recently signed on to the Terrae Novae programme (formerly known as the European Exploration Envelope Program (E3P)), intended to consolidate space exploration activities under a single European program.

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