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'Skinsuit' to help astronauts avoid back problems in space

Researchers at King’s College London are working with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop a high-tech, tight-fitted space ‘skinsuit’ to help astronauts overcome back problems in space.

Astronauts’ bodies adapt to weightlessness in space, causing bone and muscle mass to decrease as they are not needed to counteract the force of gravity. The ‘gravity loading countermeasure skinsuit’ utilises a lightweight elastic material that gradually produces cumulative tension, shoulder to foot. It does this by using horizontal strands in the suit as a 'belt' which creates a loading system directed towards the feet. This loading system simulates an additional 1g bodyweight, thereby mimicking the gravitational pull of the Earth and the force this generates on our bodies.

In weightlessness, astronauts have been known to grow by up to 7cm as gravity is no longer loading the spine. Many astronauts suffer from backache during their missions as a result of this. When astronauts return to Earth they are four times more likely to suffer a slipped disc than usual, meaning they have to take care as they exercise their bodies back into shape.

Phil Carvil, Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences (CHAPS) at King’s, said: ‘Here on Earth we are constantly resisting gravity, meaning that even by sitting and walking around we’re exercising our muscles and bones. In space the loading effect of gravity is removed and as a consequence, astronauts’ bones and muscles aren’t getting the natural forces they need to keep them healthy.’

The skinsuit could also be used on Earth to counteract the effects of ageing on bone density and muscle mass.

Carvil added: ‘The space environment provides ideal conditions for studying ageing because of the acceleration of muscle and bone wastage in space. At King’s we’re conducting further tests to examine the practicality of wearing the skinsuit both in space and here on Earth as well as investigating further terrestrial applications.’

Dr David Green, principal investigator at King’s, said: ‘New countermeasures are urgently required for space exploration. Astronauts currently spend 2.5 hours per day exercising or just getting out and putting away the required equipment. Despite this they still experience muscle and bone wastage. The skinsuit potentially offers a more effective countermeasure that takes very little space and volume and takes seconds to put on. However, putting the suit on in microgravity is not easy. During a parabolic flight in March we will test the impact of the skinsuit on posture and the ease with which it is removed and put back on, all in conditions of weightlessness.’

SkinsuitLARGE
King's students wearing the Skinsuit

Simon Evetts of ESA’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC), said: ‘Getting the suit to fit correctly was challenging. We needed to create a suit that is both tight-fitting but comfortable to wear, while creating the right amount of force in the right places.'

He added: 'skinsuit technology could also improve the support garments currently used for conditions like cerebral palsy.’

EAC’s crew medical support office is working with King’s College London and the MIT to test prototypes, and ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen will be the first to wear the suit in space during a mission in early 2015, where he will evaluate it from a functional perspective. If successful UK astronaut Tim Peake could potentially wear the skinsuit on his mission to the International Space Station later in 2015.

Notes to editors


For further media information please contact Jack Stonebridge, Press Officer at King's College London on 0207 848 3238 or jack.stonebridge@kcl.ac.uk

For further information about King's visit our 'King's in Brief' page.