Space Health News – May 2019 – Canada at the Forefront of Space Robotics and Medicine

On April 29th, a malfunction in an old power-switching unit on the International Space Station (ISS) led to a major power shortage that left the station’s robot arm outside with only one functioning power channel. The station and its six astronauts were safe, but a delivery of cargo from SpaceX had to be delayed as the robot arm requires two functioning power sources – one of them as a backup – to capture the Dragon cargo capsule.

Fortunately, the Canadian space robotics installed on the ISS were able to save the day. In addition to Canadarm2, the 17-metre-long robotic arm that performs “cosmic catches” by capturing visiting vehicles and docking them safely onto the ISS, Canada’s contribution to the ISS includes other sophisticated devices such as Dextre – a versatile robotic handyman used for the exterior maintenance of the station Soon after the power outage hit the station, an international team including experts from the Canadian Space Agency and NASA sprang into action and programmed the Canadarm2 and the Dextre robot to remove the failed unit and install a spare unit. The operation was completed in a record 72 hours, saving the ISS astronauts from having to perform an unscheduled and time-consuming spacewalk.

WELCOME TO SPACE HEALTH NEWS, our monthly briefing of opportunities and advances in deep space medicine and health care. This issue of the Space Health News recognizes Canada’s achievements not only in robotic technology, but also in the field of space medicine and human adaptation to life in outer space.

RESEARCH

MARROW: Research performed on the ISS has shown that long-term space travel impacts the human body triggering changes such as bone density loss, stiffening of arteries and loss of muscle mass. Such changes resemble the effects of aging in people on Earth – only they happen a lot faster than on Earth. To study this accelerated form of aging observed in astronauts spending time on the ISS, the Canadian Space agency has initiated a study called MARROW, which is short for “Bone Marrow Adipose Reaction: Red or White?” Led by Dr. Guy Trudel and Professor Odette Laneuville from the Ottawa Bone and Joint Research Laboratory (BJRL) at the University of Ottawa, the MARROW study focuses on astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS). The study started in October 2015 and data will be collected through 2020, on a sample of fourteen astronauts who have volunteered for the study.

As a result of long-term exposure to microgravity and the ensuing lack of exertion on the body, the bone marrow in the human body starts producing more fat and fewer new blood cells (red and white blood cells). The lower red cell count can lead to anemia, while the reduction in white blood cells increases the susceptibility to infections and the sensitivity to cosmic radiation. Anemia, in turn, can lead to weakness or fatigue and cognitive slowing, and in the long run is associated with increased mortality.

The study entails performing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the marrow of the astronauts’ vertebral bones before and after flight. In addition, breath and blood samples are taken over the course of their six-month mission in space and in the year after they return to Earth. 

Understanding how fat and blood cells are created and how they interact in the bone marrow can help scientists develop countermeasures for long-term flight aging-like health impacts. Moreover, this study can also identify ways to help patients on Earth who are bedridden for long periods of time and need rehabilitation. 

TECHNOLOGY

MicroPREP:  MicroPREP is Canadian lab-on-a-chip technology that is based on centrifugal microfluidics and uses smartphone-sized microfluidic chips. A drop of fluid (such as blood) is placed onto a specially created microchip and then placed into the device, which then moves the blood drop around the chip using electrostatic pulses. From a sample of body fluids, MicroPREP technology can isolate multiple macro-molecules such as DNA, proteins or rare cells, making it possible to assess immune system state, inflammation, bone loss or radiation effects. The relatively-inexpensive device was first tested during a parabolic flight, as way to assess the performance of the technology in weightlessness. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is now looking to take this technology to the ISS, and is seeking bids for the design of an enhanced MicroPrep System suitable for space. The device would dramatically reduce the time needed to test blood samples in space, which currently require an hour of coagulation and centrifugation with current methods.

Until the MicroPREP device is space-ready, astronauts on the ISS will use another Canadian invention – the Bio-Analyzer, a tool the size of a videogame console that can test different body fluids such as blood, saliva, and urine. Before the Bio-Analyzer, astronauts had to store their blood in a small freezer on the ISS. Operated for the first time by CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques (ISS Mission 58) in May 2019, the Bio-Analyzer can provide test results from space within two to three hours, thus reducing the need to freeze and return samples.

Bio-Monitor: Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques also pioneered the first smart-shirt onboard the ISS, designed to measure and record astronauts’ vital signs and send them to Earth. The Bio-Monitor is a wearable sensor system akin to a snug sleeveless T-shirt, and it comes with adjustable straps that help position small metal sensors against the skin. The Bio-Monitor shirt can be worn both during sleep and physical exercise, as a wireless and non-invasive alternative to the many devices astronauts have traditionally used on the ISS to keep track of their vitals.

Easy-to-wear, the Bio-Monitor shirt significantly simplifies the measurement process by taking readings of the pulse, blood pressure, electrical activity in the heart, breathing rate and volume, skin temperature, blood oxygen levels, and physical activity levels, and transmitting the measurements around the clock to scientists on Earth.

BUSINESS

Canadian Space Agency Opportunity: The Future Lunar Exploration Activities is a Call-for-Ideas solicitation open to Canadian and international bidders. The solicitation aims to position Canada for possible participation in future space exploration missions of the Moon, Mars and beyond, through the development of AI-enabled deep space robotics; autonomous long-distance spaceflight capabilities; deep space exploration technologies; and autonomous medical systems to support astronaut health in space.

Bidders are invited to submit original concepts or new takes on existing concepts related to science payloads or space missions, develop and demonstrate solutions, and/or provide services (such as launch/land capabilities) enabling the delivery of new technologies.

All responses must be submitted to CSA before Midnight (ET) June 28, 2019. Activities proposed under this Call-for-Ideas must be completed within the next five (5) years, i.e. before the end of March 2024.

IN OTHER NEWS

Following U.S. Vice-President Pence’s announcement in March of a new space policy calling for a return to the Moon by 2024, the spaceflight planners at NASA have doubled-down on developing a roadmap to make that possible. The draft plan currently circulating within the agency includes 37 launches of commercial and NASA spacecrafts over the next 10 years, transporting a mix of robotic and human landers to the Moon’s South Pole. The (previously planned) Lunar Gateway is part of the new roadmap, and is envisioned to serve as an outpost that will provide living space for astronauts orbiting the moon, a docking station for visiting spacecraft and laboratories for research.  

Canada, together with the European Space Agency, are among NASA’s partners in the Lunar Gateway endeavor. Canadian Prime-Minister Trudeau has stated that the partnership in the Lunar Gateway will be part of a new space strategy that will see the Canadian government invest $2.05 billion over 24 years. Canada is planning to contribute a smart robotic system (the Canadarm3) to the Lunar Gateway – although questions have been raised regarding the urgency of commissioning the new robotic arm in light of other priorities raised by the U.S. return-to-Moon-by-2024 goal. Despite these uncertainties, Canada sees its participation in the Lunar Gateway as an exciting step towards deeper space exploration, including a future mission to Mars.

Featured Image: Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques tries the  Bio-Monitor, a new Canadian technology, for the first time in space. (Credit:  Canadian Space Agency/NASA) 

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