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Friday, 27 March 2015

Spending a Year in Space: Expeditions 43-46

Today is an exciting day for human spaceflight! Today, an astronaut and a cosmonaut begin a year-long mission in space! Working and researching on the International Space Station (ISS), the mission will help us understand how the human body adapts to living off Earth! So, right now, I would like to take the chance to tell you a little more about it and why I think it is important.

What is it?

The Year In Space, or #YearInSpace as it is trending on Twitter, is the unofficial title of Expeditions 43-46, wherein astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will begin a year long mission on the International Space Station! Simultaneously, Scott Kelly's twin brother, Mark, will stay on Earth, thereby allowing NASA to perform comparative studies on the astronauts.

Why is this important?

Haven't we had astronauts up there for years? Is this going to set a record for the longest time in space? What makes this mission so special? These are questions I imagine most people would be asking in response to this news.

To begin with, yes, there have been astronauts living and working on the ISS, on a continual basis, for over 15 years, each new crew replacing the old. However, most crews on the ISS are only there for 4-6 months. These "long stays" are limited to 6 months for several reasons, one reason is to allow astronauts an easier time to recover to returning to Earth.

This year in space will not set the record for the longest space mission. The longest single mission, the longest a human being has spent off Earth at once, was that of Valeri Polyakov, whose mission on the MIR space station lasted 437 days, or 14 months. So, why is this mission so special?

As you may or may not know, living in space changes the human body. The first noticeable difference between the Earth's surface and floating on the ISS is just that, the floating. The space station is in a constant free-fall, orbiting the Earth, and thus when you're on it, you feel like you're constantly falling, or weightless. Without the struggle against gravity we all face (especially in the mornings, am I right?), bones lose density and muscles start to atrophy. While this process takes time, the nausea and disorientation happen right away. There are a number of other changes which have been noted in the physical and mental health of astronauts, experienced by living off Earth.

The first thing that makes this mission special is that both Russia and the US will be participating in it at the same time. Perhaps not entirely working side by side, the two nations, who are facing a lot of political issues here on Earth, at least seem to be tolerating each other in space. This has been seen over and over again, space acting as a borderless frontier where people work together, because they know how difficult it is. 

The next special thing is that this study will broaden our understanding of the changes in the human body after one year in space. This will help us broaden our understanding of the way the human body can adapt to different environments, and that information could be just as useful to us here on Earth as it is to astronauts.

My own independent study, conducted last year, looked at the effect of radiation on astronauts in different environments. I was trying to better understand the risks astronauts would face on deep-space long-duration missions. One limiting factor to my research and recommendations is that while there has been ample human presence in space, especially in the last 15 years, that experience has been short-term and very near the Earth. The total time spent by humans beyond low-Earth orbit (greater than 1000 km from the Earth's surface) amounts to a few weeks. Missions to Mars, or longer stays on the Moon, will be much different than short-term missions on the ISS, and more data is required to understand the risks. Each person is different, so many longer, deeper-in-space missions will need to be conducted to collect the data needed to understand, mitigate, and design against the risks involved. If we ever want to go to Mars, the journey lasting no less than 9 months one way (with current technology), we need more missions like this year in space.

Finally, one of the most interesting aspects of this mission, is the comparison between the astronaut on the ground to the brother on the ISS. Twins Mark and Scott Kelly will conduct a long series of tests in order to understand their physiological and psychological changes over the year. Since they are identical twins, and both astronauts, it is expected that their physiological condition should be fairly similar. This allows for an excellent comparison between living in space and living here on Earth.

How can you get involved?

The launch is set for 15:42 Eastern Standard Time. If you have the chance, turn on the news, check out NASA's website, Twitter, watch the launch and catch all the news as it develops. For many, once the launch is complete, there will be nothing really interesting happening with this story. It will take a year to collect the data, and a little after that to process it, to begin to understand it and draw conclusions. 

The great thing with increased experience is that astronauts living 400 km above the Earth is becoming business as usual. With more missions like this, we can think about exploring farther, and deepening our understanding of life here on Earth, in space, and on other worlds.

Thanks for reading!

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